Today we continue our series, Swimming Upstream. Dustin Dwyer took a road trip around the Lower Peninsula to bring us stories about fish. Yesterday we heard about the Petersens. They’re one of the few remaining non-tribal commercial fishing families in the state.
Today Dustin tells the story of the Fish Mongers Wife:
It's a grey day at the Muskegon Farmer's Market, but Amber Mae Petersen is selling the heck out of some fresh Michigan whitefish.
“We're based here in Muskegon, my husband's family has been commercial fishing here for 75 years. So we sell what we catch.”
The vacuum-sealed bags of whitefish filets, and packages of smoked whitefish are disappearing quickly. Petersen's husband Eric stands next to her, packing the fish in ice and wrapping it in old copies of The Muskegon Chronicle.
“It's the only way to do it.”
People who love to eat local fish always seem to find a way to get it, but sometimes it's not easy.
Melissa Frey had a hookup better than most of us - her husband has known the Petersens all his life. So she could drive over to the dock to get some fish.
“Occasionally we'd go down there and get a treat, but this is exciting.”
Dustin: “But now you get it more often?”
“Oh my gosh, every week. Fish tacos, fish on the grill. We love that. We're absolute whitefish fans.”
The Petersens have been pulling whitefish out of the waters near Muskegon for eight decades. But this farmer's market stand marks the first time the family has ever had a retail operation.
Talking to Eric, you can see why there was a reluctance. The family has distributors it trusts. Going through them is simple and it pays the bills.
So he says when Amber Mae pitched the idea of selling at the farmer's market, it took some convincing.
“I said go ahead, but I don't want anything to do with it, you know, because I'm not really a people person. But I got into it you know, and came with her a couple of times and everybody already knew who I was, so it kinda made me feel a little bit better about working with her, and so I come every Saturday with her.”
Dustin: “She roped you in...”
“Yeah, she did."
Amber Mae also won Eric over on the name for the new business. That quirky and catchy name is now splashed on a board above their market stall: the Fish Monger's Wife, LLC.
She can afford to gloat a bit because, well, the Fish Monger's Wife has been a huge hit.
" It just took off. The response from the community was absolutely amazing. People were excited that we were here. We actually sold out our first Saturday within an hour and a half I think it was. It was just crazy.”
But success brings its own challenges.
Amber Mae says one of her big questions right now is how big can this business really get? At the size they're at now, they're debt free and all the fish gets cleaned and filleted by hand.
“You know a filet machine used is $30,000. And if we had a filet machine, that would allow us to take a look at doing larger quantities, which would allow us to expand into restaurants and things like that ... so, you know, when you're running a business and you're saying okay, do we really want to do a business loan or not, it becomes complicated.”
Complications like that help explain why there aren't more people clamoring to get in the fish business. And why people like me have trouble finding fresh local fish at the store.
But the Petersens are making a go of it. The Fish Monger's Wife is still a pretty small part of the entire Petersen family fishing operation, but it is opening a new door and a new way for the rest of us to enjoy Michigan fish.
-Dustin Dwyer for The Environment Report