Perch return to local waters - in an old factory
Sweet Water Organics has turned an industrial Bay View building into a fish farm that could bring back a Friday night staple
Perch have largely disappeared from Lake Michigan, but Milwaukee diners soon might be able to order the popular Friday night fish fry species once more from local waters.
Just in time for Lent.
A new generation of yellow perch is being netted about a mile from Lake Michigan at an urban fish and vegetable farm called Sweet Water Organics, which mimics the Earth's natural ecosystem in a cavernous industrial building. Harnischfeger Industries once used the Bay View neighborhood building to make mining cranes.
Decades ago, perch were hauled out of Lake Michigan by commercial fishermen. The fish with a sweet, mild flavor ruled fish fries until - for reasons biologists still don't completely understand - perch fisheries collapsed in the 1990s. Most Wisconsin fish fry perch now hail from Lake Erie and Lake Winnipeg, at a hefty price of $14 to $16 a pound.
Sweet Water Organics aims to make perch a local fish again, though the price won't necessarily be less, the owners said. They hope the Sweet Water experiment will spawn more fish farms in vacant industrial buildings around the city to help feed Milwaukee's collective appetite for perch and to make Milwaukee a cutting-edge center of sustainable aquaculture.
"We're on a Great Lake and don't have access to any of that fish," said Peter Sandroni, chef-owner of La Merenda, a tapas restaurant at 125 E. National Ave., so he finds this new opportunity exciting.
"The fact it's local will make it high quality," he added, "since it goes from water to plate in a matter of hours."
Co-founded by roofing contractor James Godsil and business partner Josh Fraundorf, Sweet Water Organics is the first commercial test of Will Allen's innovative aquaculture model for perch - an eco-friendly system unveiled two years ago at internationally acclaimed Growing Power, a nonprofit urban farm at 5500 W. Silver Spring Drive.
One year into operation, Sweet Water Organics employs three full-time workers and has produced 3,000 perch (three fish to a pound), which are hitting the local market this weekend. The farm hopes to be producing 3,300 pounds of perch every two weeks within a few years. Sweet Water also has raised about 45,000 tilapia but isn't banking on that species in the future.
The fish are raised in 10,000-gallon, rectangular pools in two- to three-tier vertical systems. Designed to mimic a wetland, the systems use gravel and plants such as lettuce, basil, tomatoes, chile peppers and watercress to filter fish waste. The vegetables produced in the system are sold to restaurants and grocery stores.
The urban farm is not set up to spawn or process fish. But that, too, is part of the three- to five-year expansion plan, Fraundorf said.
Technical support comes from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Great Lakes WATER Institute, which in July delivered the 3,000 yellow perch that are now at market size.
Fred Binkowski, a senior scientist with the institute and a fisheries biologist, sees great potential for urban fish farming.
"Perch is the icon of the Friday night fish fry," he said. "We want Milwaukee to be the aquaculture center of America."
He predicts urban aquaculture will take off in cities such as Milwaukee that are flush with empty industrial manufacturing buildings.
"The technology could be used anywhere, but urban settings are the best, where the demand for the fish is, and where you could create jobs and eliminate transportation issues of food being shipped great distances," Binkowski said.
Milwaukee has about a dozen former heavy manufacturing buildings that are vacant, according to commercial real estate broker Robert Dufek, who focuses on industrial properties. Many of the city's obsolete heavy industrial buildings have been demolished so the land beneath them can be put to new use, he said.
City Development Commissioner Rocky Marcoux has toured Sweet Water and endorses the new use for the building.
Sweet Water has fielded calls from people in other cities interested in setting up similar systems, Godsil said.
Godsil, 65, and Fraundorf, 35, along with four other investors, put about $500,000 into the start-up. The building at 2151 S. Robinson Ave. is leased from developer Steve Linder.
While the fish get most of the attention, the vegetables are more profitable. The basil, watercress, lettuce and other greens grown at the indoor farm have been sold to La Merenda, Café Centraal and Beans & Barley.
The aquaponics behind the system combines fish farming (aquaculture) with hydroponics. Fish are fed commercial fish meal. A beneficial form of bacteria converts the resulting fish waste into nutrients, which then are used by the plants that grow in the same water. The plants in turn purify the water as they consume the nutrients, creating a healthy environment for the fish.
The plants grow on planks above the fish tanks.
"It's kind of like 'Pirates of the Caribbean' when you walk all these planks," said Sweet Water horticulturalist Jesse Hull.
Green technology even heats the water. Warmth generated by high-intensity lighting is captured in 300-gallon water tanks, which transfer the heat through coils into the fish water.
Compost also plays a role in nurturing the plants. Grocery distributor Roundy's Inc. donates food scraps to be turned into compost.
Sweet Water hopes to gain additional income from the sale of wheat grass, worms, worm castings and compost, plus tours, training and installation of aquaculture systems for other ventures.
Developers made some pleasant discoveries in the building. An abandoned 11-foot wide, 4-foot deep railroad bed that runs through the center turned out to be the perfect size and depth for fish tanks. These tanks are the next to be stocked with fish.
Get your perch here
If you can't wait to try the city-raised perch at a restaurant, bring a cooler to Sweet Water Organics at 2151 S. Robinson Ave. in the Bay View neighborhood between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Saturday or Sunday and take home fresh, local perch for $5 apiece (each weighs about a third of a pound).
Perch will be sold "in the round," meaning they'll be whole, on ice. You'll have to clean and fillet them yourself, as the facility is not set up for processing. Sweet Water will have a chef on hand to demonstrate how to do the filleting.
Eventually, the fish farm expects to have an on-site retail store.
Tom Daykin of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed to this report.
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