Rest assured, Minnesota diners, you can still order walleye — blackened, fried or grilled.
The Lake Mille Lacs walleye crisis has created a whirl of anxiety for resort owners, anglers and politicians. It has not, and will not, affect area restaurants and grocery stores that sell the fish.
The reason: Nearly all of the state’s commercial walleye supply comes from Canada.
Minnesotans, who have honored the walleye with the title of state fish, often assume they are consuming a local product. In reality, “virtually none” of the retail walleye is from within state borders and hasn’t been for decades, said Dan McElroy, executive vice president of the Minnesota Restaurant Association.
St. Paul’s Tavern on Grand, which claims to sell more walleye than any other restaurant in the U.S., experienced a bump in sales last week because of headlines about the species’ struggle in Mille Lacs, the state’s most popular fishing lake.
“The shortage has not really affected us, but the whole talk of the shortage has driven people in here because people assume they are commercially fished in Minnesota and want to try it because it has been all over the news,” said Andrew McCallig, Tavern’s manager.
Tavern on Grand used to get its walleye from Minnesota — until the state Department of Natural Resources banned commercial walleye fishing.
Today, only a fishery on Red Lake can lawfully sell walleye in Minnesota. “And it’s a very limited supply,” McElroy said.
Heartland, also in St. Paul, is among the few metro area restaurants supplied by the fishery on Red Lake.
“Fish can be under pressure in some lakes and not in others,” Heartland chef Lenny Russo said. And while Red Lake has a history of its own walleye population problems, he said the large lake is “really healthy and the fish populations are really healthy.”
Heartland established a supply pipeline via courier service that allows the restaurant to get fresh, whole fish by the afternoon that were harvested that morning.
And while Red Lake harvests are plentiful again, it’s not enough to run a mass distribution operation, which is why Minnesota has turned to its northern neighbor.
Last year, the state imported more than $23 million worth of fish fillets or fish meat, mainly from Canada, and exported about $957,000, primarily to Canada, according to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.
The majority of Minnesota’s commercial walleye supply comes from Lake Winnipeg or other Manitoba lakes. A small amount comes from the Canadian side of Lake Erie, said Mike Higgins, co-owner, president and chief executive of The Fish Guys, a Twin Cities fish wholesaler.
“Walleye is obviously a staple in Minnesota, and I get asked about it a lot,” Higgins said. “I do think there is a misunderstanding that it is coming from Minnesota.”