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Gone Fishin’: What Happened To Chicago’s Booming Commercial Fishing Industry?

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Lawrence’s Fisheries, now known as Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp, has been located at 2120 S Canal St. in Chinatown for more than half a century.

(Courtesy Lawrence’s Fish & Shrimp)

Chicago sits right on Lake Michigan yet hardly any of the fish served in many local seafood restaurants is actually caught here, according to Kurt Schweig, third generation owner of Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp.

This fact has Frank Passalacqua and other Curious City listeners wondering:

Why isn’t there more commercial fishing in Chicago?

It turns out that Chicago once had a booming local commercial fish industry. Local fishermen docked their boats along the Chicago River and often sold their catch on-site. During the peak years of the 1940s and 1950s, fisherman hauled in more than a million pounds of fish a year. 

Lawrence Schweig bought one of these docks along the Chicago River along with a fish stand in the 1940s, and began smoking trout and chubs for local residents and retailers. He later opened a restaurant there called Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp. That restaurant is still in operation but nothing that’s sold there nowadays is actually caught in the Great Lakes.

Curious City sat down with Kurt Schweig, a third generation owner of Lawrence’s Fish and Shrimp, to learn why we're not eating fresh fish out of Lake Michigan — even at his own family’s restaurant.

More about our questioner

(Courtesy Frank Passalaqua)

As a manager for a Chicago based Japanese- owned manufacturing company, Frank Passalaqua travels a lot for his job. When he takes these work trips he particularly enjoys visiting seaside towns, and sampling the local seafood offerings.

Frank says he wishes he could do the same thing in Chicago. He says he remembers visiting the noisy, crowded, open-air Fulton Market back in the early ‘90s, where there was a lot of fresh fish for sale.

“It was a full- fledged fish market with the open doors, wholesale prices. But it was sharks and tuna and all these different saltwater fish,” he says. “I don’t remember seeing any freshwater fish.

Frank says it’s unfortunate that industry and development have wiped out the commercial fishing industry.

“It would be nice to have this fresh fish industry here to enjoy,” he says.

Jessica Pupovac is a Chicago-based freelance reporter. Follow her at @jespup.

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