Lake whitefish are available fresh and frozen whole, in fillets, and as steaks. Value-added lake whitefish are sold as roe or smoked, either head-on or in fillets. When raw, the flesh will be nearly pure white and then turns off-white when cooked. Lake whitefish have high fat content and a mild flavor with medium-firm meat that has large flakes. The high fat content makes this fish ideal for smoking.
Lake whitefish are a freshwater fish related to salmon and trout that come from the Great Lakes in the United States and Canada. During the first half of the 20th century, whitefish were in decline from industrial pressure, habitat loss, contamination, and overfishing. Management measures introduced in the 1950s expanded over time and, as a result, Great Lakes whitefish have mostly recovered.
However, Seafood Watch gave whitefish in Lake Superior in Wisconsin an “avoid” rating due to lack of commercial harvest information as well as data suggesting that stock may be declining. The Lake Erie fishery received a high concern rating for abundance because independent surveys indicated that recruitment rates appear low. Whitefish populations in eastern Lake Superior have been declining due to overfishing and Seafood Watch reported that unlicensed fishing is happening in this area.
Habitat impacts (Wild)
Whitefish are caught with trap nets and bottom gillnets throughout the Great Lakes. Lake bottoms have soft substrates consisting of sand, silt and muck. The impact of trapnets on the areas where they are used is considered negligible. Bottom gillnets also have a low impact limited to anchors that cause minimal amounts of scouring during setting and hauling, Seafood Watch reported.
Generally the impacts of bycatch in Great Lakes whitefish fisheries are considered low due to the placement of gear and size restrictions on it. Lake sturgeon landings are prohibited because of their status as endangered or threatened in the Great Lakes. Although some do get caught unintentionally in gillnets used to target lake whitefish, scientists and fishermen found that most are returned to the water alive so there is no significant impact. Lake trout is also threatened and cannot be sold portside, but the amount of this bycatch in the whitefish fishery overall is low.
Lake whitefish has a patchy distribution and stocks that intermingle, which makes assessment and management complex. In addition, the Great Lakes span multiple countries and jurisdictions. The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) is an international agency covering multiple jurisdictions that coordinates fishery management. Separate lake commissions within the GLFC conduct scientific research and make lake-specific management recommendations. Whitefish scientific research and monitoring in the Great Lakes is highly effective. Complete and robust scientific stock assessments are carried out on a regular basis. Seafood Watch noted that lake trout is a species of concern and it’s unclear when the population will reach management goals for recovery. In general, however, recent Seafood Watch reports found lake whitefish management to be effective.