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Lake Superiorís Sustainable Cisco (or is it Lake Herring?) Fishery

Lake herring. Photo by Chris J. Benson.

Lake Superior Ė what a breath of fisheries management fresh air! In contrast to ongoing struggles in the other Great Lakes with disrupted food webs caused by invasive species, dead zones, and harmful algal blooms, resource managers and commercial fishermen have achieved a sustainable cisco fishery in the Minnesota waters of Lake Superior.

To acknowledge the sustainable fishery and the people who continue to manage Lake Superiorís resources, Minnesota Sea Grant conducted a recipe contest this summer and will be hosting A Salute to Lake Superior's Sustainable Fisheries this autumn.

Ciscoes provided the largest commercial fishery on Lake Superior in the 1940s, producing up to 19 million pounds annually. However, due to overharvest in some areas and the introduction of rainbow smelt, populations plummeted. After 60 years of trial and tribulation including the collapse of smelt populations in the late 1970s, ciscoes have begun a strong recovery.

When conditions gradually improve, the right moment to acknowledge good news is hard to identify Ö but NOW seems like a fine time to celebrate the resurgence of Lake Superior's cisco fishery. Why now? Cisco (lake herring, Coregonus artedi) populations are increasing, they are making their autumn spawning runs, and October is National Seafood Month.

Aside from a sustainable fishery, there is another reason behind Minnesota Sea Grantís uncharacteristic celebratory spirit. The founder of Sea Grant would have been a century old this autumn. Athelstan Spilhaus came up with the Sea Grant concept while Dean of the then University of Minnesota Institute of Technology (see the Bow Watch column).

True to Spilhaus's vision, Minnesota Sea Grant has been funding research to help solve challenges in managing Lake Superior since 1978. Minnesota Sea Grant research has improved managers' understanding of the biological, physical, and chemical functioning of the lake. Sea Grant research has described the deep chlorophyll layer as well as the daily vertical migration of certain fish species and Mysis (a freshwater shrimp) and its function in the productivity of Lake Superior. A recent article in the Journal of Fish Biology by Sea Grant researchers shows that what we're finding out about Lake Superior's fish is useful for understanding other situations, like ocean herring behavior in a brackish bay of the Baltic Sea.

Lake Superior's cisco are still commonly known as lake herring by many. After years of accepting both names, in 2004 taxonomists dropped "lake herring" and made "cisco" the official common name of Coregonus artedi. They did this to clarify that "lake herring" (Salmonidae family) are not closely related to the ocean herring (Clupeidae family).

The name "cisco" becomes confusing because there are several deepwater ciscoes (primarily kiyi and bloater) that are sold as smoked ciscoes. Fortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration allows C. artedi to be sold by three different market names: cisco, lake herring, or tullibee. Some also know the favorite of North Shore smokehouses as bluefin (see the caviar article). Minnesota Sea Grant's focus on lake herring, or rather cisco, will hopefully help with the fish's identity crisis and highlight it as a locally grown and processed fish that tastes great.

Organizations like the Monterey Bay and Shedd Aquariums have seafood
sustainability watch lists. To make their recommendations they look at whether the fish is overharvested or caught through destructive techniques. They rank ciscoes only as a "Good Alternative" rather than a "Best Choice" because ciscoes are caught with gillnets, which the aquariums deem destructive. Minnesota Sea Grant believes that ciscoes deserve much better than "good." Cisco along Minnesota's North Shore could not be commercially harvested without using gillnets and gillnets set for ciscoes have not been shown to damage other Lake Superior fish populations. Most importantly, Lake Superior's ciscoes are managed in a way that prevents overfishing.

To manage the fishery sustainably, the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) develops an annual quota for the commercial harvest based on hydroacoustic estimates of spawning fish. Three-years'-worth of estimates are averaged and a percentage of that average is made available for the next year's harvest. Thus, the quota increases as cisco populations increase and decline when the populations decline. The DNR only issues 25 commercial fishing licenses for cisco and allocates the quota to prevent overfishing in any one area along Minnesota's North Shore. Other Lake Superior fish management agencies are interested in implementing similar strategies for their cisco fisheries.

As Don Schreiner, the DNR's Lake Superior Fishery Manager explained, "This should be a sustainable Lake Superior fishery far into the future, barring the introduction of any new disruptive invasive species."

Even though the fishery is only a fraction of pre-1940 catches, it still has a $10
million economic impact to the state of Minnesota. The UMD Bureau of Business and Economic Research (BBER) estimated that Minnesota North Shore commercial fishing and processing contributes 57 jobs. There is also a significant out-of state
economic impact. Ciscoes are easiest to harvest when they congregate to spawn in the fall. At this time, they are also most valuable since their roe can be collected and processed into caviar. The caviar and extra fish are sent to Iowa for processing and exportation. The BBER estimated that the economic impact of the seasonal influx of cisco to Iowa is $4.5 million and results in 22 jobs.

With a new societal emphasis on eating local, sustainably produced foods, it is time to dine on ciscoes. Ciscoes can be used fresh, smoked, and frozen; they can be steamed, fried, broiled, microwaved, and baked. Making ciscoes into fish cakes is a North Shore Scandinavian tradition. Ciscoes are also a notable source of omega-3 fatty acids, those essential, unsaturated fatty acids that have been shown to reduce blood pressure, blood triglycerides, and the risk of heart attack. There is also evidence that these fish oils help with rheumatoid arthritis, cardiac arrhythmias, depression, anxiety, and may have anti-cancer effects.

So celebrate ciscoes this October and November! Cook up one of the hors
d'oeuvre recipes you can find on our web site. Come to A Salute to Lake Superiorís Sustainable Fisheries event. Read our new fact sheet, Cisco: Also Known as Lake Herring. Ask for "ciscoes-formerly-known-as-lake herring" when you eat out or cook them up when you eat in. Order some "bluefin caviar." Say "Good job!" to DNR fisheries managers, commercial fishermen, and North Shore fishmongers.


By Jeff Gunderson
October 2011

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