The Girl's Guide to Hunting for Fish
February 14, 2008 9:16 AM   Subscribe

Why are St. Lawrence River/Great Lakes fish from upstate New York unavailable in New York City?

Years ago, I used to fish in the St. Lawrence River, on the border between New York State and Canada. I used to catch, and eat, the most amazing, sweet-fleshed fish – primarily perch, pike, muskellunge, sunfish, and small-mouth bass.

In a lifetime of living in New York City, I have never, ever seen a single one of these freshwater fish for sale anywhere, in a fish shop or restaurant, for any price. Yet on a trip to Lake Erie a few years ago, I saw shacks selling fried perch (an indescribable ambrosia), so they’re obviously not illegal to sell as food.

Why are these fish never sold in New York? Is there any way to get them, short of fishing for them myself?
posted by ROTFL to Food & Drink (10 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
It seems like it must be a really local thing...and there must not be a large group of professional fishermen.

I live in Rochester and we don't even have them around here. I always thought it was odd, because growing up near Lake Michigan they always had lake fish that were amazing.

In college, in St. Lawrence county, we had to go to a fish store to get anything...and we were right there.
posted by rocket_johnny at 10:06 AM on February 14, 2008

Best answer: The truth is that there's more money to be made in tourism from sport fishing than from commercial fishing. Lake Erie's still not in the best shape ecologically and it's a zero sum game. The more commercial fishing, the less fish there are for you to catch. And you catch only a few fish and spend a few hundred bucks.

A couple of years ago, Ohio tried to end commercial fishing entirely by buying out all the license. The bill didn't go through due to opposition from the fishermen, but that gives an idea of the situation.
posted by smackfu at 10:11 AM on February 14, 2008

Best answer: It could be that all the rigamarole associated with safely eating fish from the great lakes is too much hassle for an urban restaurant some distance away from the lakes. See this guide to safely eating fish from the Erie basin, for example.

It may be easier for local restaurants with the preparation expertise and the fish nearby to turn a modest profit. Whereas the big city fish restaurants, especially those along the coastline, may want to stick with their regular saltwater fish suppliers.

Just rampant speculation on my part.
posted by OilPull at 10:19 AM on February 14, 2008

This NYTimes article tells you all you need to know about Lake Ontario fish.

I would eat them, but I don't eat fish often so the likelihood of long-term effects goes down.
posted by tommasz at 10:24 AM on February 14, 2008

Note that the Times article is from 27 years ago.
posted by smackfu at 10:32 AM on February 14, 2008

Yes it's old, but do you think things are improving? Despite the rapid exit of industry from the state, the problems left behind continue to haunt the environment.
posted by tommasz at 10:49 AM on February 14, 2008

also, there's great ocean fish right there in nyc. i think there's just more of a market for these fish and a whole industry built around them. Plus, these fish tend to be bigger and more suited for public retail and restaurants.
I doubt there's many coastal cities that have a lot of fresh water fish shipped in. Where you're talking about isn't even that close to NYC.
posted by alkupe at 10:59 AM on February 14, 2008

Best answer: It may be easier for local restaurants with the preparation expertise and the fish nearby to turn a modest profit. Whereas the big city fish restaurants, especially those along the coastline, may want to stick with their regular saltwater fish suppliers.

What he said.

And moreover, there's a not insignificant amount of marketing involved. "Patagonian Toothfish" doesn't sound appetizing. So you market the same animal as "Chilean Seabass," and suddenly it's the most popular fish on the menu.

So why aren't perch, pike, muskellunge, sunfish and small-mouth bass sold in NYC? Nobody has yet figured out a way to consistently and profitably source, serve and market these items.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 1:01 PM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Some of the above comments make good sense. Yet I regularly see Chilean sea bass, Alaskan king crab legs, and New Zealand mussels -- items from far-flung places are commonplace in NYC markets and restaurant menus. What's more, many restaurants here like to offer uncommon items, especially if they're from the general region. For example, unusual varieties of fruits or vegetables regularly appear in higher-end or specialty restaurants. So one would think offering, say, yellow perch would be a really great coup; it's an exquisite treat most locals have never eaten, and it's certainly not something any of your competition is offering.

Regarding the pollution in Lake Erie: I'm sure the Great Lakes are still quite polluted. (Then again, the oceans are polluted too.) However, the last time I looked into it, the St. Lawrence was supposedly much cleaner than it was at its nadir (say, 30 years ago?), thanks to new regulations and treaties.

What's more, some of the most widely available fish aren't considered particularly safe, due to contaminants like mercury and pcbs, yet farmed salmon, tuna, bluefish, and other pollutant-laden fish are on the menu of almost any joint that serves seafood. St. Lawrence fish like perch and smallmouth bass aren't particularly fatty, and most of them are smallish, at least compared to ocean fish like shark and swordfish, so theoretically that should add to their safety. For those reasons, although safety is always a concern, I find it hard to believe it's a primary cause for these fish not being available.
posted by ROTFL at 1:16 PM on February 14, 2008

Response by poster: Cool Papa Bell, I posted the above before I read your answer. Perhaps the problem is some combination of smackfu's "sport fishing = more $ than commercial fishing" and the lack of marketing -- particularly on the part of the commercial fisherman who would be selling the fish to local markets.

Still, the high-end NYC market loves the obscure, the unusual, the difficult-to-source. I can't help feeling that if some trendy chef "discovered" these fish, they could become a must-experience item for local foodies. I realize they could never be sold in quantity; it just really puzzles me that they are apparently never sold.
posted by ROTFL at 2:03 PM on February 14, 2008

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