Marketing Effort Helps Great Lakes Whitefish Make a Comeback
Fishing for Great Lakes whitefish was one of the earliest business enterprises in Michigan. But despite tasting good and being nutritious, Great Lakes whitefish began showing up less often on restaurant menus and in shoppers' grocery carts. As a result, communities with fishing and fish processing industries—especially tribal communities and others in Michigan's Upper Peninsula—were seeing profits decline.
Michigan Sea Grant, which has long-standing contacts in coastal communities around the state, learned about the problem and launched a marketing program in collaboration with state and tribal commercial fisheries to help solve it. "We didn't want to lose this component of state culture and its economic and tourism potential," said Chuck Pistis, Michigan Sea Grant Extension state program coordinator.
With a Fisheries Enhancement grant from the National Sea Grant Office, which is part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Pistis, Ron Kinnunen, Sea Grant Extension educator in Marquette, Michigan, and the fishing communities began a program to enhance awareness of and create marketing opportunities for whitefish in the food industry. One goal was to help the fishing businesses establish stringent guidelines for the industry to assure a high-quality product and a speedy trip from lakes to market.
An early step linked the tribal and other fishing industry leaders with the MSU Product Center, where supply chain specialist Matt Birbeck helped them form a marketing cooperative called Legends of the Lakes. Working with a market research firm, the cooperative analyzed their industry and ts potential market. "They capitalized on the local angle," Pistis recalled. Processing the fish close to home—where it's caught and where it's processed is noted on the package—helps assure freshness.
"We didn't want to lose this component of state culture and its economic and tourism potential..."
In addition, Pistis and Kinnunen worked with MSU food scientist Janice Harte to coordinate taste tests comparing fresh and quick-frozen Great Lakes whitefish to whitefish from inland Canadian lakes. "The Great Lakes fish came out ahead in all those sensory analyses, whether they were fresh or frozen," Pistis said.
"We talked to chefs and asked them for their favorite lake whitefish recipes," said Carol Swinehart, Sea Grant communications specialist. In addition to being featured in restaurants, including the Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island, the recipes appear on a Great Lakes Whitefish website. Swinehart also interviewed local fishing families and included their profiles on the website. The one-pound packages of Legends of the Lake whitefish sold in local grocery stores also feature a recipe from the fishing family who caught it. "That personal touch along with a recipe on a mealsize package made the product very appealing to consumers," she said.
Now the culinary arts program at Northern Michigan University is incorporating whitefish preparation into its curriculum, and restaurants throughout the Midwest are using Great Lakes whitefish for everything from fish fries to high-end cuisine.