reWorking Michigan: Better Quality Helping The Whitefishing Industry

Feb 20, 2012

The challenges facing companies catching and selling whitefish from Michigan waters have been many and varied over the years. A new cooperative of Great Lakes fishermen aims to improve quality. They hope the result is higher prices and bigger profits.

Changes to Native American tribal fishing rights have forced some to relocate to new ports; prices for whitefish have fluctuated; and in 2001, the destruction around the World Trade Center included a large fish market in New York City.

Matt Birbeck is with the Michigan State University Product Center. He says losing the biggest buyer of whitefish in New York’s Jewish community hurt Michigan fishermen. Canadians took over the whitefish market, and that caused prices to spiral.

“The only way the whitefishermen could sell their fish was through brokers and distributors in the Canadian market, and the distributors then started pushing the price down,” Birbeck explains. “They drove the price down, and at one point it got to about 80 cents to a dollar a pound for whitefish.”

The product center stepped in to help, with money from a USDA Rural Cooperative Development Grant aimed at forming a cooperative of Michigan fisheries and processors. Together, they created a brand of frozen whitefish products called Legends of the Lakes.

The five-member cooperative aims for a consistent supply of superior quality whitefish, worthy of higher prices.

The Gauthier and Spaulding Fisheries, based in Rogers City, joined the cooperative. John Gauthier says the whitefish chosen for Legends of the Lakes products are hand-selected.

“They probably only make up maybe 10% of our catch,” Gauthier states. “We make sure that there’s no bruises and they’re the best, finest quality of all the product that we have. So, that’s why we only use only 10% of our catch generated towards the Legends brand. The rest of it is just marketed under Gauthier and Spaulding.”

The cooperative polices itself for quality assurance. Each box of Legends of the Lakes whitefish carries the name of the fishery where it came from, making it easy to trace any problems that might arise.

Tom Spaulding of Gauthier and Spaulding hopes that as time moves on, more fisheries will join the cooperative.

“What it’s meant to us, I guess, is name recognition,” Spaulding says. “Being as we’re on the Great Lakes whitefish website, the Legends producers are on that website, so it’s just one more venue to get your name out there, so people give you a call and see what products you have to offer. So, yeah, it is important to belong to the cooperative, I think.”

Spaulding thinks the increase in income could lead to some hiring. Gauthier and Spaulding currently have seven people fishing with one boat, plying the waters of Thunder Bay in Lake Huron.

The USDA Rural Development Office reports that Legends of the Lakes products sell for $5.60 a pound, almost 50% higher than unbranded whitefish.

They can be found in a few Lansing area stores, including the East Lansing Food Co-op, Foods for Living, and Goodrich’s Shoprite.

Scott Mackie manages the meat department at Goodrich’s. He likes buying Michigan products when he can, and he gives Legends of the Lakes a personal stamp of approval.

“Like they say on their website, it’s really hard to tell the difference between the frozen product and the fresh product,” Mackie says. “And they do this frozen to keep it really fresh. They get it out of the water as soon as they can, and freeze it quickly, which keeps it really fresh.”

Bigger supermarket chains could begin carrying Legends of the Lakes products. One intriguing possibility is the Publix food store chain in the Southeast, where lots of Michigan-based snowbirds might be shopping for a taste of home.

The product line now includes frozen whitefish cakes designed to please kids, and a whitefish spread. Microwaveable fillets are coming in the future.

With a growing product line, an attention to high quality, and a hoped-for expansion of retail locations, Michigan’s whitefishing industry hopes for smoother sailing ahead.

reWorking Michigan examines our evolving economy, as citizens of the Great Lake State explore new ways to make a living and build a future for their families. Mondays on 90.5 during Morning Edition and All Things Considered, online all the time.