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European demand for Great Lakes caviar threatens Lake Superior fish

Lake Herring roe
Lake Herring roe – Credit: NPR

Lake Superior is the largest freshwater lake in North America by volume. It is home to a plethora of native fish species and it provides food for many in surrounding states and beyond. One fish in particular, the lake herring, or cisco, is a key part of the Lake Superior ecosystem. They are vital to the health and population of many fish, including the walleye, Northern pike and lake trout.

Unfortunately, the cisco is in trouble and scientists are worried. As a delicacy, cisco caviar is increasingly popular in northern Europe and that doesn’t appear to be changing. The cisco is very similar to a fish in Europe used for caviar making it an ideal choice to expand the market. Around 2007, fishermen began harvesting and exporting cisco eggs in larger quantities.

For the fishermen, the new market is a boom. For the fish species and all others that rely on them, it’s a bust. Research by the U.S. Geological Survey’s R/V Kiyi ship shows that fewer young fish are hatching as populations fall to harvesting and poor weather.

Wisconsin, where the largest cisco fisheries reside, has no limit on how many pregnant fish may be caught by commercial fishermen. If the species is to the survive, that must change. This spring, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission issued a statement pushing for the state of Wisconsin, and some Indian tribes there, to reduce the harvest and establish new regulations to stop what some scientists see as an inevitable collapse that would have profound effects on not just the lake herring population, but all other fish that rely on them.

Spokesman for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Terry Margenau, sees the problem for what it is. “What’s going on right now we don’t think could go on for long without seeing some impacts.”

Data Sources:
Michigan Sea Grant | Michigan Radio

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