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What is a Lake Whitefish?

J.L. Drede
J.L. Drede

The lake whitefish is a freshwater whitefish found in North America. Like the name suggests, the lake whitefish is white in coloration, although it also has shading of light green or olive around its backpale. Its sides and belly are typically silver in appearance, while its tail is darker than the rest of the body. The tail is deeply forked, and its scales are very large

It is part of the Salmonidae family of fish and part of the Coregonus genus, and its scientific name is Coregonus clupeaformis. While it is mostly found in lakes, populations are known to exist in large rivers as well.

Eggs of the lake whitefish are used to produce caviar.
Eggs of the lake whitefish are used to produce caviar.

One of the its distinguishing features is its very small head, which looks even smaller as it grows since its develops a large bump of flesh at the shoulders. It grows to about 21 inches (54 cm) in length and can weigh up to 42 pounds (19 kg). In the wild the fish has been known to live for up to 50 years.

Lake whitefish are found mostly in cooler climates. Its range extends from Alaska down through Canada up into the northern regions of New England, the Great Lakes and Minnesota. The depth range of the fish changes throughout the year. In the spring, the fish leaves deep water for the shallows before returning back as summer approaches. It once again returns to the shoals in the fall and early winter, however, for spawning, before again going back to deeper waters. For the most part the lake whitefish is a bottom feeder, feeding on insect larvae, mollusks and small amphipods. Additions to its diet may include other smaller fish as well as fish eggs.

The lake whitefish is sought after for both game and commercial fishermen. Caught whitefish are sold both fresh and frozen, and can be baked, boiled, fried and steamed. The eggs of the fish are also prized, and are considered to produce a very fine caviar. During the mid-1990s levels of the fish in the Great Lakes fell due to overfishing, but since then the populations have recovered significantly.

Unfortunately, while the fish is a popular choice for food, it is also found to contain high levels of PCBs. These toxic man-made chemicals were banned in the 1970s, but they are slow to break down and continue to be a problem in the wild, especially in the Great Lakes. While eating lake whitefish occasionally is not considered to be dangerous, habitual, repeated meals using the fish may increase the chances of getting cancer.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Lake Whitefish?

A Lake Whitefish, scientifically known as Coregonus clupeaformis, is a freshwater fish native to the Great Lakes and other parts of North America. It's a member of the salmon family, though it's more similar in appearance and behavior to trout. Lake Whitefish are prized for their delicate flavor and are a popular target for commercial and recreational fishing.

What does a Lake Whitefish typically eat?

Lake Whitefish primarily feed on small aquatic organisms such as snails, insects, and zooplankton. Their diet can also include fish eggs, larvae, and small fish. They forage near the lake bottom, using their subterminal mouth to sift through sediment and capture prey.

How big do Lake Whitefish get?

On average, Lake Whitefish can grow to be about 17 to 22 inches in length and weigh between 1.5 to 4 pounds. However, some individuals can reach up to 31 inches and weigh as much as 12 pounds, according to the Michigan Department of Natural Resources. Their size can vary depending on factors like habitat and food availability.

Where can you find Lake Whitefish?

Lake Whitefish are found in cold, deep, freshwater lakes and rivers across North America. They are indigenous to the Great Lakes region, but their range extends from Alaska and western Canada to the northeastern United States. They prefer depths of 50 to 200 feet where the water temperature is typically cooler.

What is the conservation status of Lake Whitefish?

The conservation status of Lake Whitefish is generally considered stable, although certain populations may face threats from overfishing, habitat loss, and pollution. Efforts are in place to manage fishing quotas and protect critical habitats to ensure their populations remain healthy. They are not currently listed as endangered or threatened.

How important are Lake Whitefish to the ecosystem?

Lake Whitefish play a significant role in their ecosystem as both predator and prey. They help control populations of smaller organisms and are a key food source for larger predators like northern pike and walleye. Their presence indicates a healthy aquatic environment, as they require clean, well-oxygenated water to thrive.

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    • Eggs of the lake whitefish are used to produce caviar.
      By: darkbird
      Eggs of the lake whitefish are used to produce caviar.