OSU Working to Boost Perch Production

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For two decades an Ohio State University professor has been working to boost yellow perch fish production. Now he says he's finding success in the lab.(Photo: Ohio State University)
For two decades an Ohio State University professor has been working to boost yellow perch fish production. Now he says he's finding success in the lab.(Photo: Ohio State University)

For two decades an Ohio State University professor has been working to boost yellow perch fish production. Now he says he’s finding success in the lab. That’s good news for consumers and restaurants. It means fresh perch will likely be available for the foreseeable future.

Deep-fried yellow perch attracts locals and out-of-towners to Gus’s Grill in Bucyrus. Owner Harmon Gus said yellow perch from Lake Erie is one of the most popular items on the menu.

“We sell a lot of perch here. I mean just a lot of perch,” Guss said. “That’s the No. 1 selling fish.”

Fresh perch arrives at Gus’s several times a week. Just before frying, Guss coats the filets in a special batter which he blends to the right consistency.

“We always thin it down just a hair bit so they get more perch than batter. I think people who order perch really enjoy the taste of a good perch sandwich so we don’t want to kill it with a bunch of extra batter.”

Many years ago, restaurants along the shores of Lake Erie would feature all-you-could-eat yellow perch dinners. Harmon Guss said those days are over because perch is harder to find and the price of perch is expensive.

“It’s probably the most expensive item we have on the menu; Lake Erie Yellow Perch,” he said.

As perch filets fry in the kitchen at Gus’s, sixty miles away in Columbus, OSU professor Konrad Dabrowski is working to increase perch production.

“Yellow perch, as you know, has been decimated, in terms of the population in the wild in the Great Lakes and Lake Erie is perhaps one of the examples of, if not decimations, then definite fluctuations,” Dabrowski said.

Perch larvae encounter a number of challenges as they enter the world; many die before they make it to viability. Dabrowski and his graduate students are trying to solve some of those problems.

“This is our lab. This is the aquatic or aquaculture lab,” he said.

Often the larvae aren’t able to break the tension on the surface of the water to fill an organ known as a “swim bladder” with air. Here in the lab, gentle jets of water spayed on the surface break that tension

“The larval fish, which is a very tiny fish, 3 to 4 millimeters, can basically come to the surface and gob the air. And they have only a very small window of opportunity to do this,” Dabrowski said. “If they don’t do this in the next three to four days after the hatching, this is like a point of no return. If they don’t succeed with filling the swim bladder there will be huge mortality within the next few days.”

There are other problems. Newly hatched yellow perch are cannibalistic. Dabrowski found that that behavior could be reduced by increasing the turbidity of the water.

“We just didn’t realize how many components have to be connected and work synchronously in order to have a success because if one of those components was missing we fail and fail and fail,” he said.

But now Dabrowski and his students are finding success. In another lab perch are growing quickly. They add about 50 percent of their body weight per day. Once they’ve grown beyond their need for microscopic “baby food” as Dabrowski calls it, they can eat food sprinkled on the water.

They’re not elegant eaters, Dabrowski said.

“They make a lot of sounds when they eat, right? So this is not always appreciated, but if you’re a fish farmer, that’s what you would like to hear, yes?” he said.

That’s part of the aim of Dabrowski’s research: helping fish farmers grow yellow perch for food.

“There is still a tradition of eating fish around Ohio and Great Lakes,” he said, “and consequently if there is a fish on the market which is able to provide the clientele with some of the product, I think this is ideal for keeping the tradition in terms of the yellow perch, as well as continuing to control the population in the wild.”

The Ohio Division of Wildlife said Lake Erie Yellow Perch hatchings have been poor for the past eight years. But Dabrowski’s research may be a turning point in producing greater perch populations in Lake Erie.

“We can recreate the conditions that are happening in Lake Erie, and basically answer some of the major questions in terms of the survival of yellow perch in the Great Lakes with experimental setup,” Dabrowski said. “This has not been possible until now.”

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