Burbot may look odd but it can be tasty

This strange fish, the only freshwater member of the cod family, usually raises many questions about its identity from anglers.

Bubot. Photo courtesy of Government of New Brunswick Canada

Bubot. Photo courtesy of Government of New Brunswick Canada

The Great Lakes burbot is one of the oddest looking fish and anglers who catch the strange specimen raise many questions about its identity. This native fish to the Great Lakes is also known as lawyer, eelpout, ling, or freshwater cod and it is the only freshwater member of the cod family. The burbot lives on the bottom in clear cold waters of the Great Lakes and some deeper inland lakes. The burbot’s odd appearance can be attributed to its chin, with its single barbel, elongated second dorsal and anal fins, rounded caudal fin, and a very smooth small scaled skin that gives it a snake- or eel-like appearance.

The burbot is one of the few freshwater fish that spawn in the middle of the winter under the ice. They spawn over sand and gravel in the lakes but are also known to move into rivers to spawn where at times local fisheries have developed. Sport fishers catch burbot while fishing for lake whitefish and lake trout. In the past many were taken from rivers with hoop nets set through the ice.

Commercial fisheries also catch burbot but a low market value makes active fishing of the burbot unprofitable. Michigan Sea Grant and Michigan State University Extension have worked with the Great Lakes commercial fishing industry in the past to explore markets for burbot but their fillets only had yield of about 35 percent. Burbot is a lean and firmed fleshed fish and is often called “poor man’s lobster.”

The burbot has a large liver rich in vitamins A and D. Many years ago burbot were harvested from the Great Lakes for extraction of the liver oil. Minnesota Sea Grant conducted a feasibility study to look at the profitability of extracting oil from the livers of burbot and concluded that extraction of burbot livers could not deliver the 50 to 70 percent yield commonly derived from cod and shark liver. Thus a fishery for burbot could not be maintained for oil alone.

Recreational fishers who catch a burbot should not be quick to throw it back because of its peculiar appearance as it could provide a tasty meal. The best way to clean a burbot is to skin it and then remove the fillets. The burbot has tough leather like skin and can be pulled off like that of a catfish.

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