A surging appetite for local food has revived a traditional North Shore vocation, supporting a big success story.
KNIFE RIVER, MINN. -- The rising sun sparkled on the waves of Lake Superior and on the sides of the silvery "herring" as commercial fisherman Stephen Dahl twisted them out of his gill net.
Some of the slender, foot-long fish flipped as Dahl, wearing a rubber suit over his thick wool sweater, tossed them into a plastic box on the floor of his 18-foot fishing skiff.
"Slap" came the sound as each landed. It was also the sound of money landing in the bank and, in a way, the heartbeat of an old North Shore tradition that some say is getting new life.
The once mighty North Shore commercial fishing industry, decimated by invasive species and overfishing, is healthier than it has been in decades thanks in part to the local-food movement embraced by Dahl and most of his customers.
That movement, in which people eat food grown and caught locally, combined with demand from Europe for caviar and from the East Coast for gefilte fish, has helped revive an industry steeped in the history and lore of one of Minnesota's most beloved places.
"Lake Superior has been a big success story," said Neil Vanderbosch, commercial fisheries coordinator for the state Department of Natural Resources [DNR]. "They've shown it's a good, local sustainable fishery. A lot of the catch is sold before they put the nets in the water."
Jason Achman, fish manager at Mt. Royal Fine Foods in Duluth, said demand for local foods from his customers is why he buys as much Lake Superior herring as Dahl can bring him. "I get 30 pounds of fillets at a time, and I have yet to throw any away," Achman said, adding that eating fish also is part of the culture of the region. "There are a lot of Finlanders around here who want the stuff they grew up on," he said.
Spawning a revival
From the 1880s to the 1930s, commercial fishing was the main occupation of North Shore residents. At the peak, they held 400 commercial licenses and caught millions of pounds each year of herring -- technically ciscos -- shipping them salted or frozen on the steamers that plied the shore.
But then the fish stocks declined, something biologists trace to overfishing and an invasion of exotic species such as smelt, which preyed on young herring, and parasitic sea lamprey, whose larvae are believed to have preyed on herring.
Some also cite pollution, mainly taconite waste. By 1987, the lake herring harvest was down to about 10,000 pounds, a mere sliver of the 9.2 million pounds taken in 1927.
Since the low point, the harvest has steadily rebounded. Biologists poisoned sea lamprey, which allowed the recovery of lake trout, which preyed on smelt. They also prohibited fishing for herring during the November spawning season and helped restore the balance of the lake by stocking species such as chinook and coho salmon.
"All these predators helped drive the smelt population down, and that allowed ciscos to come back," said Don Schreiner, Lake Superior area fisheries supervisor for the DNR.
By last year, the herring harvest was 355,000 pounds. With the rebound, the DNR reinstituted November netting in 2005, helping meet European demand for roe from the spawning herring and for gefilte fish, a traditional Jewish food.
The DNR has capped commercial licenses on the North Shore at 25. All are taken, and there's a waiting list of eight fishermen, most of whom have apprenticed two years as required with one of the "master fishermen."
Jason Bradley, 33, is one of the lake's newest commercial fisherman, having apprenticed with Dahl. Netting herring dovetails perfectly with the business Bradley and his wife, Cree, operate -- Chelsea Morning Farm -- near Two Harbors.
Through a business model called Community Supported Agriculture, the farm sells shares of its meat, produce, maple syrup and other products to as many as 120 families.
Lately the fare includes fresh-caught herring. "Local food sounds like a trendy new thing, but people were doing it 150 years ago," said Bradley, who grew up in Brooklyn Center. "I love being on the lake, and it's nice to educate people about how there are still fish in the lake, and it's good fish."
'Crazy Nordic genes'
That's a message Dahl has preached for a long time. A burly man with curly reddish-brown hair, a ruddy, wind-blown face and a beard frosted gray around the chin, Dahl, 60, was raised on a farm in Wisconsin but was drawn as a young man to fishing wind-whipped waters. "It's in my blood somewhere," he said. "It must be my crazy Nordic genes."
Three hours after "lifting" 13 pounds of herring one recent morning off Knife Island, Dahl had filleted them in a shed on his property near the shore and driven three miles to the New Scenic Cafe, where he sold the fillets to manager Crystal Carlson.
That night, the cafe offered patrons a sandwich featuring locally caught herring sauteed in white wine and butter, some fresh frisee greens, a bit of crispy prosciutto and buttered ciabatta bread.
"Whenever Steve brings his fish in, we special it, and it's gone like that," Carlson said, chopping the palm of one hand with the edge of the other. "We take special pride in being able to offer locally caught fish."
Dahl says presenting fillets to his customers is the part of the job he loves best: "When the herring guy walks in, everybody kind of perks up, and they're happy to see me," he said.
Noting that he harvested 35,000 pounds last year, he said: "I got to feed a lot of people."
Larry Oakes • 612-269-0504
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