MILWAUKEE (AP) - The lake perch once piled on plates at fish fries
throughout Wisconsin has disappeared from many menus and, when it is served,
can be priced at an intimidating “market value.”
A research project announced Tuesday by urban farmer Will Allen and the
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee aims to improve the production of farmed
lake perch, providing a plentiful, affordable supply for restaurants while
creating jobs and boosting the regional economy.
Lake, or yellow, perch have been considered a risky bet for aquaculture
because they are more sensitive to temperature and water quality than
tilapia and other commonly farmed species, said Fred Binkowski, the
UW-Milwaukee fisheries biologist leading the project. New research, however,
has shown them to be heartier than previously thought, and their higher
price tag makes them an attractive option for aquaculture.
Fish farming has been growing in the U.S. and overseas, and by 2020, more
than 50 percent of the seafood Americans eat will come from aquaculture,
Binkowski said. The industry offers great potential for urban residents, he
added, noting that an 8,000 gallon system like the one at Allen’s Growing
Power farm can produce 3,000 pounds of fish per year and support three to
Allen, who is arguably Wisconsin’s best known farmer after appearing at the
White House and other high-profile venues, said the first thing he did when
he arrived in Milwaukee decades ago was attend a fish fry where perch was
served. His organization will use the systems set up by UW-Milwaukee to help
train beginning farmers in raising fish.
“I believe the community can really prosper because of this,” Allen said.
Fish fries have been popular in Wisconsin since the 1800s, when
family-friendly taverns began offering free meals to draw beer-drinking
customers. Perch caught on Lake Michigan were plentiful, cheap and
acceptable to German Catholics observing the church’s ban on eating meat on
The price went up as overfishing depleted the lake’s stock, and perch were
gradually replaced on menus with cod, haddock and other species. Ben
Strickland, a buyer for Reinhart FoodService Milwaukee, which supplies
restaurants in northern Illinois and southeastern Wisconsin, said he sells
lake perch for about $7.50 per pound, which is nearly twice as much as cod.
Susan Quam, executive vice president of the Wisconsin Restaurant
Association, said that while many people like cod, Wisconsin residents often
prefer perch as a traditional choice.
“So, if there is a steady supply of high quality perch that would become
available at a price that is good both for the restaurant operator and the
consumer, I think there would be a demand for the yellow perch,” Quam said.
“I think the key for the restaurant operators is, is it going to have that
same texture and flavor that the wild-caught product has?”
It would, Binkowski said, because improvements in the diet of farmed perch
have made it indistinguishable from wild fish. The key now is figuring out
the economics and mechanics of raising it commercially.
The research began in May, and Binkowski said he hopes to have some economic
data available next spring.