It’s a generally smaller fish with a number of names: cisco, lake herring and tullabee.
Whatever you want to call it, the Lake Superior cisco is actually one of the most important fish in the big lake.
Although it can be eaten fresh, most people in the northland are probably most familiar with it in its smoked form, perhaps eaten with sliced cheese while watching a Green Bay Packers football game.
However, it’s the roe of the fish that is most prized. In Scandinavian countries it’s known as “bluefin caviar” and devotees will pay a handsome price to Lake Superior commercial fishermen for the delicacy.
That has driven catches of cisco upwards in recent years.
Terry Margenau, DNR Lake Superior fisheries supervisor, said the commercial harvest of cisco in the Wisconsin waters of Lake Superior has increased dramatically since 2008 when commercial processors began accepting whole fish. Cisco — also known as lake herring — may be sold fresh or smoked but their roe holds the greatest value.
"The annual harvest from 2008 to 2014 averaged nearly 1.4 million pounds, a level more than three times the average annual harvest from 2000 to 2007," Margenau said. "The cisco harvest from Wisconsin waters now accounts for two-thirds of the total Lake Superior harvest and there is concern among Wisconsin fisheries managers as well as those from neighboring states and Canada about survey data that shows declining abundance of the fish.”
This is a crucial factor for much of the Lake Superior fishery. Cisco are a favored prey species for both whitefish and lake trout. Anything that negatively affects cisco could have serious implications for these premiere Lake Superior species.
Thus, for the first time, the Wisconsin Department of Natural resources is considering a management plan for cisco. DNR officials have responded by holding a pair of stakeholder meetings in Bayfield and at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center this week, seeking comments on their management proposals.
These proposals include a proposed quota of 15 percent of the catchable population per year. This would be the first time a quota has ever been set on cisco.
“It has been a fishery that has been regulated in large part by market conditions and the weather,” Margenau said. “This is a fishery that occurs in November and the first part of December, and the weather on Lake Superior can be somewhat troublesome at that time of year.”
Still, given the erratic nature of cisco spawning success and the increasing market demand for the fish, Margenau said it was time for a more comprehensive management strategy, especially in the light of fishery studies that show a decrease in numbers of the fish.
“We are at that point now where we want to maintain a sustainable fishery,” he said. “We have had multiple meetings with our commercial fishermen, our stakeholder fishermen and we have been working through this.”
Margenau said there were two goals — to create a sustainable fishery and at the same time, keep commercial fishermen in business.
“It’s their livelihood, we want to enhance that,” he said.
Margenau said commercial fishermen have been “very, very helpful in the process.
“They are pointing out some things that we haven’t seen because they are out there a lot and they have made some good points and we have modified the management plan as we have gone along over the past several months,” he said.
Such a level of cooperation may be seen as being unusual — nobody likes being regulated. But Margenau said the reason was actually quite simple.
“They care about the fishery,” he said. “There is concern. And it is warranted. They are concerned that this may hurt their livelihood.”
Margenau said the spirit of cooperation has even extended to offers by commercial fishermen to lend assistance in the DNR’s continuing research efforts.
“We are short on staff and budgets, and they offered to help us out. That’s great,”
It is a matter of enlightened self-interest, said fifth generation commercial fisherman Craig Hoopman of Bayfield.
“It’s actually very simple — at the end of the day, any time you talk about a total allowable catch, or harvest, and they are going to base it on a three-year basis,” he said. “If you don’t spend the next three years collecting all the data for all of the Lake Superior waters in Wisconsin, you won’t get a figure on the actual size of the biomass that is out there.”
Hoopman observed that areas studied by the DNR last fall amounted to 10 percent of the waters that are fished by the state’s commercial fishermen.
“We are taking 90 percent of the fish out of 10 percent of the water, so all of the commercial fishermen are interested in what in these other areas,” he said.
Hoopman noted that cisco are a pelagic species, and move widely throughout the lake.
“They could be on the south shore today, they could be headed towards the north shore tomorrow,” he said. “We want to know what the total number is. Right now they are seeing between 14 and 19 million pounds, that is what their acoustic soundings say. We are interested in getting the whole picture of what is out there, so we know we are not overharvesting. Are we under harvesting? What is the true picture?”
Hoopman said the proposal of a 15 percent quota was something that commercial fishermen could live with.
“Right now, setting it at 15 percent, which is still a safe harvest — that is something we have never reached,” he said. “Last year we reached between nine and 10 percent. That has been the average for years.”
Hoopman said it was a “crying shame” that the DNR did not have the resources to pursue the research fully.
“They just spent three-quarters of a million dollars to retrofit their boat. It’s got a new motor, new hydraulics, new everything,” Hoopman said “It’s a state of the art boat and it should be out there doing it’s job. Let’s get it out there for more than six days for this project. If we have to go to Madison to stress the need to use this boat, we are all on board to do it.”