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 four jobs.
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 Friday.
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.
His team is testing filtering systems at Growing Power to see which ones best remove from the water the nitrogen and ammonia built up from fish waste and uneaten food. In systems that combine fish and vegetables, one question is which plants consume the most nitrogen as fertilizer, thus removing it from water. Another consideration is the set-up cost of each system, which is important to beginning farmers.
The research began in May, and Binkowski said he hopes to have some economic data available next spring. More information will follow in years to come.
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