MANITOWOC, Wis. — 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.
DNR 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 DNR 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. The fish comes to the U.S. frozen and is not as tasty as yellow perch.
Susie Q now sells jumbo perch from the bay of Green Bay, he said. Restaurants don’t want to use it because it is too large to fry up and serve on a plate, but he said it is tasty and sells for around $12.50 a pound for those ambitious enough to prepare the meal at home.
People might be missing the yellow perch today, but Leclair doesn’t believe the shortage will last forever.
“It might go another year or so,” he said. “It goes in cycles. About seven years ago, we saw this, too. Then, the price goes up and people stop eating as much. Then, the perch eventually repopulate and it starts again.”
Until that happens, local restaurants are cautiously optimistic about serving perch.
“It’s made everything more difficult,” said Brock Weier, owner of Courthouse Pub in downtown Manitowoc. “We’ve been trying to keep it on our menu. We’ve been switching vendors with fish from all the Great Lakes.”
Lake perch is one of the top items on the Courthouse Pub menu. It’s served daily, and Weier said when it runs out for the day, it runs out. So far, they have not had to raise prices, he said.
“At least we haven’t run out completely,” he said. “We haven’t had to take it off our menu yet. I have talked to some restaurants in Door County that have had to.”
He and his partner also are talking with national vendors to purchase now fish that will be frozen in November. Otherwise, costs for perch go up dramatically after Thanksgiving, Weier said, and Courthouse Pub wants to plan for the busy Lent season. Working with a national vendor that freezes allows restaurants to buy perch ahead without having to store large amounts in their own freezers.
Frozen fish isn’t as desirable because it can’t be cooked as delicately as fresh, and is often deep-fried to hide stronger flavors, he said. Courthouse Pub also sells other fish dinners for popular Friday fish fries and Lent, he noted.
But perch is Courthouse Pub’s highest-selling item, and the restaurant probably goes through 60 pounds a week. Despite the current shortage, Weier also expects things to turn around.
“I remember this happening before,” he said. “Eventually, it will cycle back. In the meantime, we will have to make do.”