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Commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes borrow an idea to help revive their industry

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

When you eat a tasty fish fillet, what happens to the rest of the fish? Well, a group of companies in Iceland has an answer. They use nearly 100% of the fish. Some commercial fisheries in the Great Lakes are trying to do the same, and they hope it will revive their industry. Dan Wanschura from Interlochen Public Radio reports.

DAN WANSCHURA, BYLINE: Leland, Mich., is a quaint town, population about 400. It sits on the eastern edge of Lake Michigan and is home to Fishtown, a historic collection of small fishing shanties. Carlson's Fishery is located in one of them, a shop that's been selling directly to customers for 120 years. This day, a local fisherman just brought in about 1,700 pounds of fresh whitefish.

JIM VERSNYDER: They are gorgeous.

WANSCHURA: Jim VerSnyder, a big guy in bright-yellow, waterproof bibs and a blue bandanna tied around his head, is filleting the fish.

VERSNYDER: You aren't going to find anything much better looking than this. It was swimming this morning (laughter).

WANSCHURA: VerSnyder tosses the whitefish fillet on a pile on a table in front of him. Then he slides the rest of the fish, about half of it, into a big, rubber garbage bin. Just a few years ago, Carlson's wasn't doing anything with those fish scraps. They were dumped in a landfill. Dave Naftzger says that's been pretty common for the entire Great Lakes. He heads an intergovernmental organization that's behind an effort to get the Great Lakes commercial fishery to use 100% of each fish caught.

DAVE NAFTZGER: Our fishery has for decades, maybe centuries, not really truly been a fishery but rather a fillet production industry.

WANSCHURA: The current value of an average Great Lakes whitefish is around $15. Naftzger thinks it's realistic to double, even triple that amount in the next several years by using more of each fish. He hopes the Great Lakes fishery can find the same success that a group called the Iceland Ocean Cluster has. So he traveled thousands of miles to meet the founder.

NAFTZGER: Walked into his office. He had a fish-skin fish-leather lamp that was a piece of art hanging. And he had a table with all these different products that were being made from parts of the Icelandic cod that used to be put in landfill.

WANSCHURA: Inspired by that meeting, Naftzger started the Great Lakes 100% Fish Pledge when he returned home. His team began by sending whitefish to Iceland for biotechnical testing to see what other products they might be used for.

NAFTZGER: They identified things like fish leather from the skin, collagen that can be made from the skin and from the scales, fishmeal and oil that can be made from the viscera or the guts and a couple of other products, as well.

WANSCHURA: There's been similar testing for other Great Lakes fish, like walleye, lake trout and yellow perch. They've got big goals for them, too.

Back at Carlson's Fishery, co-owner Mike Burda is spraying the fillets down with water. He says for the past few years, Carlson's has avoided landfilling its fish scraps. Instead, they brought them to the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians for composting. It's putting the rest of the fish to good use, but for Carlson's, there's no money involved. Burda is optimistic the 100% Great Lakes Fish Pledge changes that.

MIKE BURDA: I hope that it allows us to be able to be successful with a little less work than we're currently doing. And then obviously, to make use of all of this natural resource is a big thing. And then I hope it's lucrative.

WANSCHURA: Lucrative for the fisheries and for the Grand Traverse Band, which is talking about developing a liquid fertilizer with the fish parts. So far, about 25 businesses in the Great Lakes have signed on to the 100% Fish Pledge. Their goal is to find ways to use all parts of the fish by next year. For NPR News, I'm Dan Wanschura in Leland, Mich.

(SOUNDBITE OF KACEY MUSGRAVES SONG, "SLOW BURN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Daniel Wanschura
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