Transom stories: Reinventing a business to cope with declining whitefish populations

Aug 29, 2018

Saturdays are for selling fish. On this Saturday, Ed and Cindi John aim to earn a week's income in only five hours.

Cindi unfolds the tables while Ed drags big, blue coolers off their truck bed. They’re filled to the brim with fish – cisco, lake trout and lake trout patties.

“We come out rain or shine,” says Cindi. “If it’s pouring rain, we’ll be here.”

 


It’s a beautiful sunny morning at the Sara Hardy Farmers Market in Traverse City. Rows of vendors line the sidewalks. And at 7:30 a.m. on the dot, Ed and Cindi are selling fish, and joking around with customers.

The Johns are both members of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians. They’ve been running Treaty Fish Company together for nearly 30 years – catching fresh fish straight out of Grand Traverse Bay.

"I dive in,” Ed jokes. “I catch ‘em by hand!”

Where are the whitefish

As the morning goes on and customers walk by the Johns booth, there is a recurring question: do you have any whitefish? The short answer is no. No fresh whitefish.

“Whenever we catch ‘em – if we can catch ‘em, they’ll be here,” Ed tells customers.

This isn’t the first time the Johns haven’t had whitefish. Cindi remembers when she first started to notice their disappearance back in 2005.

“We were catching large catches of whitefish, and then something happened, and then it switched over to very large catches of lake trout and very small catches of whitefish,” says Cindi.

It was a huge switch. In fact, the amount of commercially caught whitefish has plummeted over the last two decades.

Invasive mussels

Who’s to blame for this decline? Well, there may be a few culprits. Fish stocking, overfishing, climate change. But one huge – or I guess tiny culprit – is the invasive quagga mussel. Trillions of them. They only grow to about the size of a fingernail, but they come with an appetite. These mussels can filter the entire volume of the lake in only four to six days. 

That’s decimated the plankton in the lake and turned the entire food chain on its head. This hit the whitefish particularly hard, and as one of Michigan’s most in-demand commercial fish, it soon hit Ed and Cindi hard as well.

“It was a very huge uncertainty because that’s what the whole seller wants to buy,” Cindi says, “and that’s how we made our living was selling to the wholesaler.”

Credit Colin Shea

Changing business

They had to change their business model – and fast. They got out of the commercial wholesale business and went more local, starting to sell directly to restaurants, individuals and this farmer’s market every Saturday.

“We’re probably catching a tenth to a quarter of what we used to catch,” Cindi says. “It was a lot more lucrative to sell wholesale. There was a lot more money selling wholesale.”

But Cindi says there have been benefits to changing their business model.

“I have other benefits from it, the relationships and all the great people we’ve gotten to meet doing it,” she says. “And just the joy I get from doing this artisan type fish and being able to bring the people that buy fish from us the same quality of fish that I like to eat.”

In addition to scaling down, they’ve started selling more lake trout. Trout are stocked by the government each year to keep their numbers up. So they’re a reliable catch, but this can be a hard sell for an area that’s run on a whitefish diet for years.

Cindi finds herself educating her customers.

“It’s been interesting at the farm market because we’re right on the front line, introducing folks to fish that they’ve never had before even though it’s right out in the lake,” she says.

Another good day

By the end of the farmer’s market, the Johns have two packs of trout steak left.

“Soon as these go, even if they don’t go, we’re sold out,” says Ed. “It’s a good day, good day.”