If you bought crappie fillets online last year, you likely paid over $20 per pound.
In stock or out, most—if not all—wild-caught crappie meat sold in the U.S. has one source: recreational anglers in Vermont. That’s because Vermont is one of the few, possibly only two, states that allow hook-and-line anglers to sell panfish they catch.
The other state, New York, also lets anglers sell crappies, but only if they caught their fish in another state that allows their sale. And that means Vermont. Further, because Vermont’s portion of Lake Champlain offers the state’s largest crappie fishery, the United States’ 13th largest lake (490 square miles) is the nation’s chief source of “commercially-caught” crappies.
Recreational anglers in Vermont and New York can also sell yellow perch, bluegills, pumpkinseeds, and other sunfishes. And yes, largemouth and smallmouth bass are technically sunfish, but New York regulates those species by size and season length, protecting them from commercial harvest. Vermont also forbids anglers from selling largemouths and smallmouths. It calls them “black bass” and lists them with salmon, trout, lake trout, walleye, muskellunge, and northern pike as species that can’t be sold.
Likewise, Vermont allows the sale and purchase of white perch, a mostly Eastern fish similar in size and looks to white bass. Vermont and New York also include unregulated species like rainbow smelt, rock bass, brown bullheads, channel catfish, common carp, and sheepshead (freshwater drum) in the “weigh and pay” category. But unlike white perch, those “other” species generate few sales by recreational anglers.
Mainstream Commercial Fishing That doesn’t mean you can’t find wild-caught panfish or gamefish for sale or on restaurant menus. Regional markets offer walleyes, lake trout, and yellow perch netted by tribal or commercial operations around the Great Lakes and Canada.
Likewise, bluegills, trout, and salmon are often raised and sold by “aquaculture” operations, or fish farms. And, since early March, Florida lets its fish farmers raise and sell certified “pure” Florida-strain largemouth bass. Even so, caveats and restrictions are common for captive-raised fish. As the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources stipulates: “No freshwater gamefish may be sold except by a SCDNR permitted aquaculturist, a SCDNR wholesale aquaculture licensee, a SCDNR aquaculture gamefish retail licensee, or a private pond owner selling less than $2,500 in product annually.”
Crappies, however, can be difficult to raise commercially. Crappies, white or black, reproduce inconsistently and can quickly devour all available food when their numbers explode. The expense and frustration of raising crappies in captivity typically exceed their commercial value.
States are less restrictive about carp, catfish, sheepshead, and other rough fish, and often allow licensed netters, seiners, and setline operators to catch and sell them. But facilities selling fish for human consumption often must hold retail or business licenses, health-department permits, and inspection certifications.
Most states, however, enforce strict bans on selling fish caught by recreational anglers. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife, for instance, addresses the issue emphatically: “These laws are very clear on the books, and there is no wiggle room anywhere here to allow for selling sport-caught fish.”
Crappie Capitalism Therefore, Vermont finds itself the country’s chief crappie vendor. To sell panfish in Vermont, anglers must simply hold a sportfishing license and abide by its hook-and-line regulations. Vermont crappies are subject to a 25-fish daily bag and 8-inch size minimum. Vermont sets no bag or size limits on bluegills and sunfish statewide, nor for yellow perch on Lake Champlain. Yellow perch on inland waters have a 50-fish daily limit.
Vermont’s fish buyers, meanwhile, must hold a commercial permit and possession-limit exemption. They must also submit annual reports to the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department, providing the poundage and minimum lengths of panfish they buy.
Shawn Good, a fisheries biologist with the Vermont FWD in Rutland, said state laws that allow panfish sales are at least 50 years old. He considers the statutes “archaic and outdated,” but said they’re difficult to adjust or eliminate because any change requires legislation. In contrast, rules set by the Vermont FWD’s governing board are more easily adjusted as conditions change.
“Our commercial fishing statutes aren’t specific to commercial operations,” Good said. “The statutes allow any licensed angler to sell fish that aren’t listed as gamefish, but our gamefish list is out of date, too. It only includes our big, fancy, splashy fish like trout, salmon, walleyes, and bass; and it basically identifies everything else as rough fish or cull fish.”
The law also doesn’t require a commercial permit for recreational anglers who sell their catch. Therefore, few, if any anglers declare their fish payments as taxable income.
“We really don't know who or how many hook-and-line anglers sell what they catch,” Good said. “If they were actually commercial fishermen, they’d need a permit and we’d know who’s doing what and for how much. Most commercial buyers operate bait shops, so anglers just bring their catch to a local bait shop and sell what they don’t want to take home.”
Nor do Vermont’s statutes require thorough bookkeeping by fish buyers. “The buyers weigh and pay, but there’s no accounting or auditing system,” Good said. “We know the buyers because they have to fill out an annual report of poundage by species and length. We think we know the total weight of the fish, but those numbers aren’t reliable. Most are estimates made up from memory. Their reports are probably minimums.”
Payouts and Poundage Based on those reports, however, panfish payouts and poundage are significant. When the Vermont FWD tallied annual reports from 1998 through 2015, it found fish buyers statewide bought 7.11 million pounds of panfish, an annual average of 394,772 pounds. Those totals included yellow perch, bluegill and pumpkinseed, white perch, and crappies. Anglers received a combined $13.18 million those 18 years, for an annual average of $732,471, or $1.86 per pound overall.
Yellow perch were No. 1 at 3.74 million pounds of live-weight fish, and their value totaled $8.42 million. That’s an annual average of 207,891 pounds, with annual payments averaging $467,554, or $2.25 per pound.
Those same years, bluegills and pumpkinseeds generated 2.39 million pounds of live-weight fish, and $3.54 million in payouts. Their annual averages were 132,778 pounds and $196,347 in payments, or $1.48 per pound.
White perch were next, totaling 671,259 pounds and $298,684 in payouts, with annual averages of 37,292 pounds and $16,594 in payments, or 44 cents per pound.
Crappies, meanwhile, totaled the least weight, 302,586 pounds, but $935,584 in payouts. Their annual averages were 16,810 pounds and $51,977 in payments, or $3.09 per pound.
Note: Those are not market prices for cleaned and packaged fish fillets. Most angler-provided fish are shipped out of Vermont and sold four times before reaching retail markets.
Generally speaking, anglers sell their catch to a bait shop, which sells the fish to a large regional buyer like Ray’s Seafood Market in Essex Junction, Vermont. The fish then get trucked to a processor/wholesaler in Wheatley or Port Dover in Ontario, Canada, on Lake Erie’s northern shoreline. The wholesaler then ships the processed fish to markets in Boston, Chicago, New York City, and other big cities, as well as to online outlets like WalleyeDirect.com in Minneapolis.
“When you see a mail-order description of 'wild-caught black crappie,' those fish are almost exclusively coming from Vermont,” Good said. “No other state I know of allows it.”
Fish or People Problems? Meanwhile, back on the ice and water, agency biologists and some anglers worry how money and the market affect the fisheries and angling. For instance, even though crappies generate smaller catches than other panfish (yellow perch, white perch, bluegills, and pumpkinseeds), crappies can pay three to four times more per pound. Therefore, Good and other biologists worry that crappies could become more vulnerable to angling pressure. They also think the panfish trade causes poor behavior and fierce competition between anglers.
“This system incentivizes bad behavior,” Good said. “It’s not just about crappies. We get a lot of complaints from regular anglers who have a hard time catching bluegills bigger than 5 inches on a pond after the commercial guys hammer it. You can spot commercial anglers a mile away on the ice. They’re efficient and highly mobile. They hop hole to hole with their bucket, yanking perch and bluegills as fast as they can. And when crappies gather at backwater culverts in spring, we see fights and arguments when commercial guys run off a father and his kids. They’re there to make money, and they act like they get priority.”
Most issues, in fact, center more on human behavior than fish biology. “There’s never been a deep biological concern about hook-and-line anglers hurting a fish population,” said Jason Batchelder, the Vermont FWD’s chief conservation warden. “The only species that gets the hairy eyeball is crappies. They’re worth a lot of money, and during their three-week run each spring we’ll see bullying, swearing, and jockeying for position among the anglers. It’s hard to say if behaviors would be better if people couldn’t sell their catch. As the guy [John Gierach] wrote, ‘There are only two types of anglers: those in your party and the assholes.’”
Paul Dunkling, co-owner of Ray’s Seafood Market, said friction between anglers differs little no matter their motivation. Dunkling said his family has sold and hauled fish and other seafood since 1949, and he defends those who sell their panfish.
“A lot of our providers are retired guys who like to fish and just want to pay for their gas,” Dunkling said. “Some of them are regular providers, but we buy from a lot of people we see only once or twice. Most of them would fish anyway. The ones causing problems have no ethics. If a guy drills a hole too close to you and says it’s a free world, he creates tension. But you see the same thing in the deer woods when someone gets too close.”
Good agrees that most commercial anglers adhere to bag limits and other rules, and buyers won’t risk paying obvious violators, but the agency can’t be everywhere. “We know some people catch their 25-fish daily limit, sell the fish, catch 25 more, and sell them to another bait shop the same day,” he said. “Or they’ll call their wife after stashing two buckets of 25 in the woods, and she’ll pick them up and sell them to two different shops. These guys are smart and well-connected. They keep good tabs on our wardens. It’s hard to manage it all.”
Batchelder said the agency has run undercover operations to deter illegal activities, but it also “waves the flag” regularly to persuade potential violators to stay legal. “We do pass-throughs so they know we’re around, and sometimes we put people in strategic positions,” he said. “When there’s even a hint of a warden, the anglers’ behavior changes.”
A Tough Sell Good said the Vermont FWD has long opposed the panfish trade, and tried as recently as 2018 to get lawmakers to end it. The public, however, is divided and less supportive of change. A 2010 statewide survey found less than 50% of Vermont anglers consider angler-caught fish sales a minor, moderate, or serious problem. In fact, less than 10% considered it a serious problem.
“Politicians listen to their constituents,” Batchelder said. “We want to end it, but the politicians say we aren’t showing them a biological problem, and they let it continue.”
In fact, Vermont’s statewide 2020 angler survey found even less concern among resident anglers. Less than 25% said sales were a minor to serious problem, and less than 8.5% consider the problem serious.
Batchelder said Vermont’s deeply rooted culture might make people support fish sales because they’ve long been legal. “Vermont is very traditional about restraints imposed by government,” he said. “Our rules are less restrictive than what other states are used to. I mean, we have a gun season each spring for shooting northern pike. People can also hunt and fish on private property unless it’s posted against trespassing. Vermont also lets anglers use up to 15 tip-ups on Lake Champlain and up to eight tip-ups on inland lakes. Unless we can show those things cause biological harms, they won’t change.”
Public perceptions about Vermont’s panfish trade might also stem from the state’s focus on trout, salmon, walleyes, and largemouth bass. “Panfish haven’t been a big deal here, at least not like they are in states like Minnesota and Wisconsin,” Good said. “Few of our anglers in the past went after bluegills and sunfish. That’s changing as growing numbers of anglers target them, but we’re still way behind the 8-ball in understanding our panfish populations. We really don’t know if they’re still robust, or if they’ve been impacted by the high-grading by commercial fishing.”
Conclusion Meanwhile, the Vermont FWD is expanding its management programs to better assess panfish populations and evaluate the impacts of current regulations. “Right now you can catch and keep 1,000 bluegills a day if you wanted,” Good said. “That’s important and it needs to change.”
Feature image via Sam Lungren.