Fish fries take a hit as perch catch plummets

(AP) Nothing says Wisconsin more than sitting down to a plate of freshly battered perch and an Old Fashioned on a Friday night.

Yet, that happy tradition is getting harder to fulfill in Manitowoc and throughout the state thanks to a plunging supply of fresh lake perch.

“It’s the worst year ever,” said Paul Leclair, president of Susie Q Fish Company in Two Rivers. About 90% of his perch comes from Canadian fishers using Lake Erie, and that supply is down dramatically, likely because of overfishing, pollution and invasion of the sea lamprey and other foreign species.

“They’re not catching much right now,” Leclair told the Manitowoc Herald Times Reporter. “Everyone is scrambling.”

He gets some of his yellow perch from the bay of Green Bay now, and Susie Q is able to support the restaurants it supplies but can’t provide for anyone else. He’s putting perch in the freezer now for the restaurants he works with, including six or seven in Two Rivers and Manitowoc.

“Come winter, when no one is catching anything, we will have perch for Lent,” Leclair said.

Department of Natural Resources testing shows how dramatically the perch population has sunk.

In a 2019 Graded Mesh Assessment, done with nets featuring a range of mesh sizes designed to capture fish of different age classes and considered the best gauge of the perch population, just three perch were caught in several days of work.

In 2018, just one perch _ a 13-year-old female _ was caught in the same test. That compares to thousands of fish routinely caught in a single night of netting in the late 1980s.

Fish, including perch, have faced such losses that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has considered placing tight regulations or stiff fines on commercial fishing in the Great Lakes in favor of anglers.

The scarcity means prices have gone up about $2 a pound to $15 a pound retail, Leclair said.

Because Great Lakes perch is so hard to come by, some businesses are turning to European perch, or Zander, he said, which comes from Poland and other areas in Europe with bodies of fresh water.

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