Locally sourced food businesses grapple with fish consumption advisory on PFAS-laden smelt

In Southwest Detroit, Nick George, aka Dr. Sushi, runs a sustainable food business pairing Midwestern agriculture and produce with Japanese cooking techniques. It “grinds” him that more Michigan-based restaurants don’t use Great Lakes fish in their cuisine. He doesn’t see the point in importing fish, especially tiny ones, halfway across the world, he said, when there are plenty of tasty eco-friendly choices nearby.

George says that Michigan’s invasive (non-native) rainbow smelt population is one of the most bountiful fish sources in the Great Lakes. Pan-fried smelt dusted with flour and spices and fried in a little butter is a favorite dish of his Norwegian mother and one he grew up eating often. Rather than traditional shrimp, George uses Lake Superior smelt in his tempura rolls, a hit at catering events.

Photo courtesy Dr. Sushi.

But ahead of the spring smelt spawning season this year, Michigan regulators reissued a warning for people to limit their consumption of Lake Superior smelt – the first Michigan sport fish to receive an advisory because of Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS). 

Just one 8-ounce portion for adults, and 2 to 4 ounces for children, is recommended per month. The guideline first came last March after Wisconsin shared data showing elevated PFAS in the tissue of rainbow smelt taken near the Apostle Islands in western Lake Superior. And new state data from 2021 shows the presence of PFAS in a variety of state waters outside of Lake Superior.

These “forever chemicals” are slow to break down and have been widely used for decades to make everyday products. Research shows high levels in humans may cause problems with reproduction, growth and development, cancer, and more.

“But now, I have this interesting ethical debacle,” George said. “Do I continue to use smelt? I could bring attention to the issue by making super delicious-looking food that I have to put a disclaimer on,“ he said. “Maybe that serves the double purpose of educating my customers and potentially getting them to give a shit about the Great Lakes.”

He’s weighing it out, but most likely, he’ll keep making fried smelt tempura with avocado and a little spicy mayo. After all, each roll is only about 4 ounces. As for his Wakasagi Nanbanzuke dish (fried smelt soaked in a tart vinaigrette), that’s probably a no-go. Though meant to be shared, the plate is a full pound of smelt. 

Since COVID-19 devastated his business, George said he hasn’t been making many large fish plates these days. He’s hoping to build back his carryout operation to include more pop-ups and classes. Educating consumers about global and local sustainability issues is part of his jam. This PFAS warning is an unfortunate opportunity, he says, to raise awareness about our local watershed and Great Lakes system.

“For someone making every effort to use local and sustainable products, this is disconcerting,” he said. “I’ve already spent ten years trying to figure out how to make Midwestern fish palatable in the context of sushi. Now, it’s like I’m trying to solve the plastic problem, and I don’t know how to do that.”

If you ask Alison Heeres, co-owner and “homegrown head cook” at Coriander Kitchen and Farm, she’ll tell you also that swimming against the current is hard work.

Most of the products featured on her seasonal menu are grown at the restaurant’s farm, and what isn’t is bought from local and regional food purveyors. Both smelt and whitefish are regularly on the menu, she said, but they come from freshwater lakes in Canada. Lake Trout for her smoked fish dip is the only Great Lakes fish in her kitchen.

The decision to source further north was intentional, as she’s concerned with overfishing and fish shortages among Michigan’s tribal communities. When you’re committed to offering healthy, sustainable food, she said, every decision is challenging. 

Heeres hadn’t yet heard about the PFAS advisory on Lake Superior smelt. 

“Things are changing all the time, and it’s not like your purveyors call you and tell you something’s changed,” she said. “It takes a lot of time and energy to try to stay up on those things, and then there are customers who expect consistency of product.”

Heeres is now wondering if her Canadian smelt has been tested for PFAS. The 7-ounce fried offering at Coriander is a comfort food favorite for both staff and patrons. 

Whether it’s fish, beef, chicken or lamb, trying to consume good meat with every meal isn’t really a sustainable reality, Heeres says.

“This may not affect us now, but,” she adds, “I’m definitely going to be looking into it.”

A fish contaminant mystery

“We do not know why smelt contain elevated levels of PFAS compared to other fish species,” Lynn Sutfin, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services public information officer, wrote Planet Detroit in an email. “For most chemicals that we test for, including mercury and PCBs, larger fish typically have greater body burdens of contaminants than smaller fish. However, that trend is not seen with PFOS or other PFAS.”

State data suggest that this trend is consistent for other small fish like bluegill and sunfish – fish that until now have largely avoided contaminant advisories because they are lower in the aquatic food chain and do not live long enough to accumulate high levels of typical toxins. Meanwhile, top-predator fish like whitefish and coho salmon from Lake Michigan and Atlantic salmon from Lake Huron, which bio-accumulate compounds like PCBs and dioxins, do not show high levels of PFAS.

Those top predator species “would correspond with MDHHS’ least restrictive fish consumption guideline of 16 servings per month” if PFAS were the only contaminant of concern, Sutfin said. “However, more restrictive consumption guidelines are in effect for these species in these locations due to PCBs and dioxins,” she added. Sutfin said the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) are working to find sources of the pollutants.

Living with fish contaminants

At the Bay Port Fish Company, on the inside edge of Michigan’s thumb, the call list for spring smelt runs 700 names deep.

The family-owned fishery typically sells at least 5,000 pounds of the small rainbow-colored fish during April. It’s high in vitamins and protein, tasty to eat, and quick to fry. Most folks buy one or two family meals, but others purchase quantities to last throughout the year. 

The company purchases its rainbow smelt from Native American fisherman in Whitefish Bay, on the eastern side of Lake Superior. The silvery fish used to be plentiful in southern Lake Huron, says Lakon Williams, the fishery’s co-owner and operations manager. But, today, the catch generally requires traveling to northern parts of the state for smelt dipping.

Lake Superior smelt. Photo courtesy Bay Port Fish Company.

Williams said her company will continue to buy and sell the highly anticipated fish unless the State of Michigan declares it unsafe for any consumption. She plans to post signage on her counter to educate customers but says they often brush off fish consumption advisories. She doesn’t expect the warning to substantially impact sales. 

“I think most people think everything causes cancer, and ‘I might as well enjoy what I like before I go,’” she says. Still, some do ask questions that she works to answer, often referring customers to Michigan’s Eat Safe Fish Guide for further education. The best advice she can give customers, she says, is to vary what they eat, whether it’s freshwater or ocean fish.

The Williams’ are no strangers to the industry’s challenges. Established in 1895, the fishery has been owned and operated by their family for over 40 years. Each decade has brought new government warnings concerning fish contaminants. Williams said the company works to stay up-to-date on the news, attending Great Lakes committee meetings and participating in the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. 

Before COVID-19, Bay Port Fish Company brought its catch to Detroit and Ann Arbor markets weekly. But the costs of traveling and paying employees, Williams said, have become too expensive to return anytime soon. Bay Port Fish Company products can be found at locally sourced shops like Midtown’s  Seasons Market, Pure Pastures in Dearborn and Plymouth and Ann Arbor’s Argus Farm Stop.

Williams said there’s nothing she would rather do than run her family’s fishery. But she’s keeping an eye on PFAS, as she does all things concerning the Great Lakes.

“We provide people with a healthy protein full of Omega-3 oils, and we enjoy what we do,” she says. “Fish are needed; food is needed, so we’ll be fishing as long as it’s deemed safe to consume.”


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