Sweden's yen for herring roe fuels Lake Superior fishery

Hauling herring
Tyler Smith (left) and Harley Toftey (right) move containers of herring from a recent trip to their Lake Superior nets Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 at the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

About a half-mile off shore from the Grand Marais harbor, Harley Toftey reaches overboard and pulls a 300-foot-long gill net laden with lake herring over the bow of his Boston Whaler.

The boat rolls like a roller coaster ride on 8-foot swells that would cost most landlubbers their lunch. But Toftey barely seems to notice.

Along with two helpers, he quickly picks the slender foot long fish out of the twine and plops them into bins. The men slowly work their way down the net as the bins fill with dozens of fish, in a slow but steady rhythm. They hardly speak amid the sounds of the boat's motor, wind and waves.

After an hour Toftey guides his boat back into the calm waters of the harbor. At the dock, he unloads 16 plastic bins, each filled with about 70 pounds of fish, trapped as they swam into shore to spawn.

The bounty of fish mark the height of the lake herring season on Lake Superior, where for about six weeks every October and November, thousands of the silvery fish, also called cisco, are pulled from the icy waters. The harvest supports a small but thriving fishing industry along the North Shore that caters to the growing market for local and sustainable food.

Click for more photos of herring fishing on Lake Superior

There's even a cisco cook-off in Minneapolis Tuesday night featuring some of the state's best known chefs. But this time of year, it's not the meat that drives the demand for cisco. It's the eggs, destined for plates in Sweden. That's where there is growing the demand for lojrom, the roe, or egg-filled sack.

Toftey, who runs the Dockside Fish Market in Grand Marais with his wife Shele, said there are a lot more herring in the big lake than there used to be, and more people buying it.

"The market's really improved," he said. "When I first started you probably did have a little trouble selling your fish. Now there's no trouble selling fish."

Processing herring
Herring make their way through the Dockside Fish Market processing facility Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012 in Grand Marais, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR

Toftey's fish are part of the 30,000 pounds of cisco fish from around the region processed every day at a small plant just off the dock, where Tom Opheim oversees 20 workers who guide the fish through machines that clean and gut them.

"You put the fish in upside down through the belts," Opheim said. "It cuts the belly, which opens the belly cavity up for the people to pick the roe out of the female fish."

Opheim works for an Iowa company called Interlaken Fisheries that leases the building from Toftey every fall. He pulls a handful of tiny pinkish orange eggs from the fish -- hundreds of them -- to look at what some employees call "Lake Superior Gold."

"The roe all goes to Sweden," he said. "There is no real market in the United States for lojrom."

A Swedish delicacy, lojrom is the roe of a fish called vendace, native to the Baltic Sea. It is typically served as an appetizer with toast, sour cream and chopped onions.

When the Baltic Sea fishery started declining about six years ago, Swedes began importing the similar-tasting Lake Superior cisco product. Stockholm restaurant manager and chef Peder Lindh said Swedes hold the same regard for lojrom as the French do for champagne.

"It's a tradition, from the family to the family," he said. "The mother [teaches] the daughter, the father tells the son how to do the fishing, so it's a really old tradition. We're really proud of it."

Netted fish
Tyler Smith, left, and Harley Toftey, right, pick lake herring, or cisco, out of a gill net in the bow of Harley Toftey's boat on Thursday, Nov. 8, 2012. It's easy for fishermen to catch cisco during their spawning season in late October and November, and lucrative. Their roe fetches $8 a pound. The eggs are a delicacy in Scandinavia.
MPR Photo/Dan Kraker

Part of the tradition survives on Lake Superior, thanks to the Scandinavian immigrants who brought their fishing tradition to Minnesota in the late 1800s. The Lake Superior herring fishery was once the largest in all the Great Lakes. At its peak in the early part of the last century, the fishery employed more than 400 fishermen on the North Shore who harvested 8 million pounds of herring every year.

But beginning in the 1930s, the population began to plummet, the result of overfishing, and the introduction of two invasive species: smelt and sea lamprey. In the 1970s, the state Department of Natural Resources closed herring fishing during the fall spawning season.

"The fish management agencies on Lake Superior got together and said we had to do something here or this species is going to disappear," said Don Schreiner, the DNR's Lake Superior area fisheries coordinator.

As a result, the herring population in Lake Superior slowly recovered. In 2006, after a 30-year hiatus, the DNR once again allowed commercial fishermen on the North Shore to harvest cisco in October and November. Schreiner said it's the only fish they allow to be caught during the spawning season.

"The roe is very lucrative," he said. "The fishermen normally get about 50 cents a pound for the fish in the round, when they fillet them and sell them, fillets go for about $3 to $4 per pound."

But the eggs fetch $8 a pound.

About 160,000 pounds of Lake Superior cisco roe is now exported every year to Scandinavia. Schreiner said about a third of that comes from Minnesota fishermen.

"There's very few fisheries in the world that have come back from being depleted," he said. "In Lake Superior we've got two species we can be proud of, one is the cisco, or lake herring, the other lake trout."

Because the recovery isn't complete, Schreiner said, fishing restrictions remain in place to protect the lake herring.

Meanwhile, the main exporter has scaled back purchases from Lake Superior. This late in the season, the roe becomes runny, and slurpy lojrom doesn't sell as well.

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