Ciscoes (lake herring) have roughly the same level of omega-3 fatty acids (EPA and DHA) per ounce as sockeye salmon. They are more buttery than lake whitefish but are similar in many ways (mild flavor, flaky). Food critic, Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl said, “…Lake Superior herring are singularly delicious. It’s an incredibly clean-tasting, light and delicate fish.”
Ciscoes are harvested from Lake Superior with gill nets by both tribal and state-licensed commercial fishermen. Most of the ciscoes harvested during the non-spawning season are sold locally to restaurants, retail stores or directly to consumers. In October and November, when the bulk of the harvest occurs, supply exceeds local demand, so many ciscoes are sent out-of-state to be made into gefilte fish and the roe is made into caviar. Ciscoes cannot be harvested in Lake Michigan and occur in very low numbers.
Ciscoes eat zooplankton, insects and smaller fish. In the circle of life, they are eaten by top predator fish including lake trout, burbot, northern pike, walleyes, and salmon. They are long lived for a fish (up to 20 years) and can produce strong year classes.
Before the 1940s, cisco were the most productive commercial fishery in Lake Superior (up to 19 million pounds annually!). Due to overharvest and the introduction of nonnative rainbow smelt, populations plummeted. Since the smelt population collapsed in the late 1970s, ciscos have done better in Lake Superior.
Cisco are tasty and versatile. You can purchase them fresh, smoked, and frozen. Steam, fry, broil, boil, microwave, or bake them. Cisco eggs (also known as roe) are sold as bluefin caviar. Fish cakes made with cisco originated in Scandinavia. Cisco is ground and mixed with other ingredients to form gefilte fish, a Jewish specialty food.
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Old ways die hard. People commonly talk about cisco as lake herring.
In 2004, fish taxonomists decided lake herring should be called “cisco” to clarify that the freshwater species is not closely related to ocean herring, which you can buy in jars as pickled herring. Cisco are members of the Salmonidae family, which includes trout, salmon, lake whitefish and char. Ocean herring belong to the Clupeidae family, which includes alewife, shads, sardines and menhadens.
Many names for the same fish: Lake herring, cisco, tullibee, bluefin, Coregonus artedi (used by the science crowd), odoonibiins (Ojibwe).