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Eating local from the lake

Stephen Dahl steers his skiff back to shore. LaReesa Sandretsky

The Minnesota State Fair got a taste of Lake Superior this year.

Knife River fisherman Steve Dahl and New Scenic Café chef Scott Graden made the trip to St. Paul to give a cooking demo at the Minnesota Cooks booth. The goal was to showcase local chefs preparing local foods. Graden made tacos from fresh herring caught by Dahl.

"It's great to be a part of the local food network," Dahl said.

Dahl is a commercial herring fisherman on Lake Superior. He has three nets just off-shore of the Knife River Marina, which he checks them each morning. Some days, he pulls up hundreds of pounds of fresh fish. Other days, there's almost nothing, but most years he's out on the Big Lake from early spring until the end of November.

Dahl said currents and wind direction influence the fish, but after almost three decades of fishing, it's no easier to predict whether it will be a good day to catch fish.

"Every time I think I have something figured out, it changes completely," he said.

Dahl graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and began a master's program in Scandinavian literature at the University of Minnesota before he took up fishing. But learning where to place nets, how to pull them, and how to filet the fish wasn't done in the classroom.

"This is the classroom," he said, motioning to the lake. "It's a great classroom."

He completed a two-year apprenticeship with another fishing company before he started working. An apprenticeship is the prerequisite to get a master's license for commercial fishing on Lake Superior. Only 25 of them are available in Minnesota and a fisherman must be out on the water 30 days per year to maintain his license.

Dahl sells most of his fish locally. Super One, the Lighthouse at Emily's and Kendall's Smoked Fish are among his customers.

In November, fishermen harvest herring roe --caviar--which is shipped to northern Europe because there isn't a market for it here, he said. Mostly, he sees herring as a natural resource that he's harvesting and bringing to his community.

"The resources are here for everyone. I'm just here to access it," he said.

Dahl and his fellow fishermen have had their setbacks. When the lake trout population was decimated by lamprey, commercial fishing for them was banned. Now, the population is healthy, Dahl said, and locals want trout. But the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources has been reluctant to allow commercial fishing of trout again--fearing that fish populations would be reduced for sport fishermen. After a long battle, commercial fishermen in zones north of Knife River have been granted a small quota of trout. Dahl still hasn't been allowed anything in his zone, but he's happy that progress has been made.

"Our story is pretty darn positive. It wasn't always that way, but we did it," Dahl said, referring to the changes in quotas.

The state fair presentation is all part of Dahl's hope to educate people about commercial fishing on Lake Superior and about local food in general.

He wants people to know that the fishing done by commercial fishermen is sustainable. The DNR has carefully researched and decided on quotas of herring that can be pulled from Minnesota waters. Fishermen never approach that quota, he said.

As for local food, he has more demand for his fish than he can handle. Eating local food is good for the environment and tastes better, but it also has as significant effect the local economy. A 2011 study of Minnesota Lake Superior fishermen by the University of Minnesota-Duluth, estimated that the economic impact of commercial fishing on the region is about $10 million.

Eating local foods might mean some sacrifices--like no fresh herring in February--but Dahl thinks the benefits outweigh the inconvenience.

"It connects people a little bit more to the rhythms of the earth," he said.

While he likes the political aspects of his job and being part of the local food movement, Dahl also likes fishing for what it is--hard, physical labor with tangible results.

"I hope to keep doing this until I can't," he said.

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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