I grew up just 15 minutes from the beautiful sandy shores of Lake Huron, but having an understanding of the impact of the Lake on our livelihood completely escaped me. To me it was all about the beach – a place I love to go to relax with a good book. As a natural resource, conservation of the Great Lakes is on my radar, but still I had no idea what lives below the surface and how it impacts our food source.
So, when I met Stephanie at Purdy’s last week I was delighted to learn much about commercial fishing on Lake Huron.
Purdy’s Fish Market was founded in Sarnia Bay (Grand Bend) by Stephanie’s grandfather in 1900. In 1927 it moved to Blackwell Sideroad where it operated until the early 40‘s when the next move to Point Edward was necessitated when the fishing grounds were displaced by the harbours being dredged.
Stephanie told us how in the early days the fishery caught small pan fish – yellow perch, sun fish and rock bass – which they sold wholesale to a Michigan market. She talked about how, in the early days, the boats would come in and fish mongers would purchase their wares directly from the to sell door to door with their carts.
When the business moved to Port Edward, under the leadership of Stephanie’s aunt, it evolved to include a retail location. It then built, and continue’s to enjoy, a large wholesale market in New York City . A couple of times a week fish are transported to Michigan where the distribution house dispatches Lake Huron fish to New York including the renowned Fulton Fish Market where Lake Huron fish is revered and the Purdy’s are treated like celebrities for not just the quality of the fish (firmer, fresher), but also the method of catching them via trap nets.
Trap Net vs Gill Net Fishing
Trap nets have large net boxes fixed to the bottom of the lake nearer to the shoreline – up to 50’ down. A lead line, or fence, draws the fish into the net where they continue to happily swim about. When the nets are brought up the small or undesired fish are released back into the lake.
Trap nets are used for Whitefish in Grand Bend, Yellow Perch in Port Franks and Pickerel in the Sarnia areas.
Gill nets target a specific species, based on the size of the mesh. The fish swim into the net where it gets caught, and can’t wiggle out. These nets must be emptied right away. Gill nets are used farther out in the lake in depths of 150 – 180’.
Commercial Fishing on Lake Huron
Fisheries need a license to fish on the Lakes and the license determines the area, of which the Purdy’s own two stretching from Sarnia to the Goderich area, including exclusive rights for the southwestern Lake Huron basin for trap netting. A gps system on the boat keeps the crew within permit boundaries. Different areas are fished at different times of the year, with trap nets closer to shore that the gill nets which are typically farther out in the lake.
TRIVIA: When the moon is full, gill netting is unsuccessful, particularly for white fish. Is it the currents? Can the fish see the net? Apparently Pickerel like dark shadows and dirty water. Pickerel trap nets are black and the whitefish nets are green
Fishing operates on a quota system which regulates the quantity of each type of fish a fishery is allowed to harvest per year. For example, in Canada, selling Pickerel over 25” is not permitted, but it is okay in the United States where regulations and standards are different – ie. Mercury levels in Canada must be below .5pts/million, while in the states its 1pt per million.
Stephanie moved back from the West Coast to Grand Bend and the family business 11 years ago. She is working with high profile chefs to get Lake Huron fish on to their menus. Jamie Kennedy is a loyal customer that describes this product as “pristine” and “beautiful” … certainly not words I would use for fish! To be honest my experience with fish growing up was those tasteless minced fish sticks. As an adult I’m willing to try new things and now often order fish in a restaurant when I expect the chef has culinary training and/or expertise. I still don’t make it at home often enough as I’m intimidated by the thought of cooking it.
The Purdy’s have ten fishing boats although only a couple would be dispatched any one day. Many of their 35-40 employees, are trained in all aspects of the business, but the approximate 10-member crew on the boats are nearly always men. Fishing is extremely difficult and physical work, so women are not usually interested, although Purdy’s does employ one fisher-woman. The day for the crew can be quite long – for example with the gill nets, in the wintertime, the boat may leave for the fishing grounds at three or four a.m., while the trap net boats may leave at 6 or 7am in the summer-time. They may be out 10 to 15 hours, and they may indeed return home “skunked”. The daily catch reports on the boats monitor for quota reporting. The quota is monitored by the Ontario Commercial Fishing Association where royalties are paid to the Province of Ontario.
Weather has a major impact on this business and conditions are constantly monitored both on the boat and on land to ensure safety of the crew. For the third time in Stephanie’s memory, Purdy’s were out of business for about six weeks during winter 2014 regarding their wholesale market as Lake Huron was completely frozen. Typically the boats are cutting through ice, following the paths of the ice breakers that are always on the Lakes during the winter months to accommodate the Lake Freighter trade.
TRIVIA: After the harsh winter of the 2014, the lake was really clean so this season has been affected, leaving the industry wondering “where did the fish go.”
I asked Stephanie what she wants the general public to know. She suggests that consumers come to their shop with an open mind and try to be flexible when purchasing fish. Not all fish are available fresh everyday so try the catch of the day or be prepared to buy frozen. Eat fish twice a week for its health benefits – trying 1 lean (pickerel or perch) and 1 fatty (white fish or Lake trout).
Stephanie added that a Michigan study rated Lake Huron whitefish – a member of the Salmon family – as the healthiest of all fish. It’s very rich in Omega 3’s.
Lake Huron Salmon is available just for anglers. Therefore salmon provided through Purdy’s Fish Markets is imported. Fish prices have not changed significantly in years – whitefish and Lake trout being more economical than Yellow perch (citing less quota and more labour).
Stephanie’s Favourite Recipes:
Stephanie prefers pickerel on the barbeque … cooked skin side down on tin foil with a little garlic and dill dressing (available at The Garlic Box). Alternately, yellow perch dredged in crushed up bacon dipper crackers, fried in butter and oil is a popular choice. Either way, it’s very quick to cook – the ultimate fast food.
Check out the website for more great recipes and information on the different types of fish, cooking classes (Fish 101 is a popular choice that I think I’ll try to attend this fall) and more. "Like" Purdy's Dockside Eatery on Facebook for daily specials.
This family business is operated by Stephanie, her brother and her parents. Stephanie’s husband has another career, but also is involved as he operates the smoke house.
One of the most challenging aspects of the industry are the names of the fish as many are known by different names. Further, a bad taste will often cause a broad stroke “I don’t like fish” commet and reluctance to try something different. Stephanie in fact feels it would be great to eliminate the term fish, because like wine, fish have distinctive tastes and flavours.
DID YOU KNOW?
The Lake Huron Centre for Coastal Conservation provides leadership and works tireless ly to retain the health of Lake Huron and bring awareness to this important ecosystem.
Purdy’s at the Bend
59 River Road
(Beside the Grand Bend Yacht Club)
Grand Bend, ON
Retail markets are also available at:
Purdy’s Fish Market
1 Riverfront Road
(South of the Casino)
Point Edward, ON
Purdy’s at the Farmer’s Market
110 Proctor Street