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The importance of the entire fish – scales and all

Three Door County fisheries commit to 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge

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November 1, 2023

DOOR COUNTY – In the 1990s, the Icelandic cod fishery – which stood as a historic backbone for the Icelandic economy – collapsed due to overfishing.

As one can imagine, this posed a sink-or-swim moment for the Nordic island nation nestled on the Mid-Atlantic Ridge between North America and Europe.

David Naftzger, executive director for Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers (GSGP), said the collapse prompted the people in Iceland to pivot – and fast.

“A large group started to work on trying to restore the stocks and make sure there would be more fish in the water,” he said. “This group looked to say, ‘with however many fish we have, we need to do as much as possible with each fish.’ So they began to look at ways they could use the fish for things other than just the filet.”

With this in mind, Naftzger said the Icelandic fish industry spent the next several years exploring new ways to use 100% of the commercial fish being caught.

As a result of this decade-plus work, the Iceland Ocean Cluster (IOC) was created in 2012 – which focuses on creating value by connecting entrepreneurs, businesses and knowledge in the marine industries.

“(They) began innovative work that’s now spanned more than a decade to identify different products that can be made from what were historically fish by-products, or were just put in a landfill and disposed of,” he said. 

Fast-forward to 2022, when Naftzger said GSGP got involved with the cluster. 

“We began to look at the Great Lakes commercial fishery, and it has a lot of similarities to the Icelandic cod fishery of 30 years ago – stocks have been declining,” he said. “(The stock is) almost used exclusively for the filet, with some low-value products being made from the by-products, but still a number of companies are putting raw material into landfills or paying for it to be disposed of.”

Inspired by the success of IOC’s 100% Fish Project, Naftzger said “we began the collaboration about a year ago,” and started the 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge.

Since then, three Door County fisheries – Henriksen Fisheries, Baileys Harbor Fish Co. and J&M Fisheries – stepped forward to make the pledge.

Naftzger said this means the three fisheries publicly committed to using 100% of each commercially caught fish by 2025.

The value of the fish
Currently, Naftzger said only 40% of a fish commercially caught from the Great Lakes is used on average – specifically the filet portion, or the part that people consume. 

The other 60%, he said, is either used for lower-value products or wasted.

“But a fish isn’t just a filet,” he said. “The 60% of the fish that is not the filet has tremendous value.”

Some initial studies in the U.S., Naftzger said, showed that a fish’s value could jump from $12 USD to nearly $4,000 USD when 100% of the fish is used in a variety of ways.

“Twelve dollars used to be just the filet price,” he said. “Now, they’re able to make things like collagen – which can be used as a nutritional supplement – fertilizer, fish leather… fish meal and oil, which can be used for aquaculture feed and other types of feed.”

Parts of the fish, Naftzger said, can also be used for medical applications.

David Naftzger, executive director of Great Lakes St. Lawrence Governors and Premiers (GSGP), said GSGP decided to collaborate with the Iceland Ocean Cluster after experiencing a similar decline in stock. Submitted Photo

“Probably the highest value application that’s been developed in Iceland is an innovative medical bandage that’s used for severe burn victims,” he said. “Because of the underlying texture of the (fish) skin, it grafts to the burn victim’s skin far better than any synthetic substance.”

The company that developed the idea, Naftzger said, recently opened its first North American office in the Twin Cities and is potentially looking to source future raw material from Great Lakes fish.

“We’re just scratching the surface here and trying to identify the low-hanging fruit that can build on the way fish are already being processed – recognizing we have a larger group of smaller producers instead of a more consolidated industry like you might have in Iceland or in some of the coastal fisheries,” he said.

Since the focus of the 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge is “to use the parts of the fish that either have no value… or low value,” Naftzger said there would be no direct impact on the price of fish filets.

“There are a lot of different market dynamics that inform price,” he said. “Consumer demand, availability of other substitute products, availability of supply, what other species are available on the marketplace, increasing product availability from aquaculture – that all creates a rather complex picture.”

The fisheries
Since the start of the 100% Great Lakes Fish project, Naftzger said several fish companies have been involved, stretching as far as Ontario, Canada.

Henriksen Fisheries in Ellison Bay is a business Naftzger said he has had the chance to work with previously.

“Charlie Henriksen happens to chair the Wisconsin Lake Michigan Fish Producers group,” he said. “I was able to make a presentation to that group several months ago and introduced this idea (of the pledge).”

Some businesses, such as Baileys Harbor Fish Co., already use 100% of its fish, which owner Carin Stuth said made the decision of signing the pledge “very easy.”

“All of our by-products we currently provide to a fish fertilizing plant within our county,” Stuth said. “So, we’re already making good use and recycling the end tails, bones, heads and scales.”

What Stuth said she looks forward to now that the business has pledged, is finding other ways to get more value out of the fish.

U.S. studies show the value of a single fish can jump from $12 to nearly $4,000 when the entirety of it is used. Submitted Photo

“If there’s an entrepreneur or group that decides to use one of these sources of product for a new product, we would gladly work with them to get them that raw material,” she said.

Stuth said that could potentially prompt a change in the company’s process to “get them the particular raw product they need.”

“But I think it’s doable with what we do for our processes,” she said.

Charlie Henriksen, owner of Henriksen Fisheries, said signing the pledge was an easy decision for him as well.

“We’ve always been proactive in promoting our industry, in protecting our industry and trying to diversify our ability to make a living,” he said. “(The pledge) seemed to check all those boxes, so the decision wasn’t difficult at all.”

Henriksen said the fishery also uses more than just the filet and is in collaboration with another business.

“We’re embarking on an interesting collaboration with a leather maker out of Minnesota,” he said. “We got some products that are made out of fish leather.”

Some of those products include journals, leather purses and belts made of fish leather – which Henriksen said both he and his son wear. 

For the consumable part of the fish, Henriksen Fisheries makes boneless filets, fish boil chunks and fish patties and also supplies 25 different restaurants with its fish. 

When it comes to getting the best value out of the fish, Henriksen said the challenge will be figuring out the who, where and how.

“Who’s going to do that work, where are they going to do it and how are we going to get the product to them,” he said. “We already ship fish all over… But where do you get enough volume to do some of the things (we’re) talking about? We’re going to participate as much as we can.”

In an effort toward its 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge, Henriksen Fisheries is collaborating with the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on a different initiative.

“We’ve also been talking to professor (Dong Fang Deng) at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Freshwater Sciences Lab, and she’s looking at some of our products to see if there’s a way to develop an aquaculture feed from (them),” she said. “It turns out that farm-raised fish, it’s expensive to feed them, so she’s looking for ways to use some of our products to do that.”

Economic, environmental impact
Naftzger said the economic and environmental impacts of the 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge work hand in hand. 

“Stocks have been declining for a number of species,” he said. “Whitefish, for example, has declined (greatly). If we’re able to generate more economic activity around this smaller catch – at least in the near term – that helps to incentivize more preservation for the fish, and more sustainable approaches in the future, so those stocks can rebound and become healthier.”

Additionally, to help increase the stocks, Naftzger said “we’re also looking at species that are not usually targeted commercially.”

“White sucker is an example (of) a common fish in the Great Lakes,” he said. “That’s one of the species we’ve been evaluating for 100% fish products. And again, that helps to take pressure off of the more mainstream commercial fish, which for our purposes (are) white fish, walleye, yellow perch and lake trout.”

In turn, Naftzger said being more sustainable and utilizing all the fish “creates much more economic activity around the fishery.”

“I remember when Thor Sigfusson, the director of the IOC, came to visit,” he said. “We went to one of the fish processing plants where they were removing the filet and everything else was being put on the floor. He reached down into some wet, murky material on the floor, picked it up and said, ‘I can’t believe you’re wasting this. This is the most valuable part of the fish.’ What he had in his hands was the future of medical bandages.”

Different products, such as the medical bandages, Naftzger said, are what will help create economic opportunity. 

“There are a lot of companies already doing these kinds of things,” he said. “Dramm (Corporation), for example, makes an organic fertilizer product out of non-filet parts of the fish and some of the fish companies sell to them. All of that helps to create more rural employment opportunities and economic activity.”

Naftzger said GSGP doesn’t know exactly what the future will look like but knows more income around fisheries is certain to benefit communities. 

Authentic products from the Greater Door County area, such as fish leather belts or purses, are expected to boost tourism spending. 

“I think there are lots of tourists who are looking for authentic products and things they can’t get anywhere else,” he said. “(Let’s say) you got a cool souvenir that no one else is going to have when you go back home… That’s the kind of thing at the retail level that creates another revenue stream for (fisheries) in addition to the food products they already carry.”

Throughout the process, Naftzger said GSGP has collaborated with a few tribal organizations, such as Red Cliff Fish Company, and individual tribes.

Some fisheries, such as Baileys Harbor Fish Co., already use 100% of their commercially caught fish. Submitted Photo

“(They) reflect the historical approach of the tribes using wildlife, fish and an ethic of not wasting everything and using everything possible,” he said. “This is a welcome opportunity in scenarios of the state and the region that could benefit from another opportunity to use natural resources for economic benefit.”

The importance
Stuth said the importance of making the pledge is significant, and “shows responsible fishing, globally.”

“I think bringing attention to the Great Lakes commercial fishing, and that we are using the product – the majority of us – for protein, so people are getting food, which is important,” she said. “Then to be able to use the by-products is, I think, super responsible and green, where a lot of the focus in the country is headed today.”

Naftzger said the various uses of fish help create more economic activity around the fishery.

“Which increases sustainability, rural employment and more income for the fish processors like the three in Door County,” he said. 

To learn more about the 100% Great Lakes Fish pledge, visit

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