Signs of trouble ahead for Lake Superior's historic lake herring fishery

Eric Brisson checks out the day’s cisco haul after docking his boat in the Grand Marais harbor on Lake Superior on Nov. 5.

The cisco is a fish in demand: Its meat graces Passover tables as gefilte fish, and its eggs are a delicacy in Scandinavia. Commercial fishing operations on Lake Superior’s North Shore depend on it, netting hundreds of thousands of pounds of the silvery, foot-long fish from the lake each year.

But there are signs that the cisco, also known as lake herring, may also be a fish in peril.

Lake Superior’s cisco numbers have been steadily falling over the past decade. Last year’s commercial catch was just half the haul from 2006. As climate change makes Lake Superior’s winter ice cover — which helps cisco eggs hatch by protecting them from the elements — less reliable, researchers say Minnesota’s deep-rooted North Shore cisco fishery faces an uncertain future.

A cold, early start

At 5 a.m. on a November morning at the Grand Marais, Minn., harbor, fisherman Eric Brisson and his assistant, Shaun Linnell, suited up head to toe in waterproof rubber gear.

As the temperature hovered around 18 degrees, they hopped onto their 22-foot steel boat, painted green and stacked with empty plastic fish boxes, and braced themselves.

“The first initial go is kind of cold,” said Brisson. “Once you’re on the lake and get moving, it’s not so bad.”

They start the boat under a star-speckled sky, and motor 2 miles northeast of the Grand Marais harbor to check the nets they set the day before. Braving the frigid weather and early mornings on Lake Superior is a daily ritual for Brisson. From 9 to 5, he’s an appliance repairman, but early mornings are reserved for catching cisco.

The fish spend most of the year in deep water, miles from the lake’s edge. But each fall, cisco move closer to shore to spawn and lay eggs in the rocky shallows. Those eggs — cisco roe — can fetch a high price for Brisson and Linnell. And that grouping in the shallows that allows the fishermen to gather the spawning cisco en masse.

Late fall can be lucrative for commercial fishing operations like the one Brisson runs. Some years, more cisco are pulled out of Superior in November than in the rest of the year combined.

But for Brisson, fishing is more than a job.

“For me, it’s more of a family heritage kind of thing,” he said. He’s a third-generation fisherman who apprenticed with his uncle before getting his own commercial fishing license three years ago. Even though he squeezes fishing in before his day job, Brisson takes pride in carrying on the family tradition and enjoys the thrill of early mornings on the lake.