Native to Atlantic coastal regions, white perch invaded the Great Lakes through the Erie and Welland canals in 1950. Prolific competitors of native fish species, white perch are believed to have the potential to cause declines of Great Lakes walleye populations.
White perch have been found to eat the eggs of walleye (Stizostedion vitreum), white bass (Morone chrysops), other white perch and possibly other species as well. Fish eggs apparently are an important component of the diet of white perch in the spring months. At times, depending on which fish is spawning, the eggs of either walleye or white bass comprise 100% of the white perch’s diet. During one three-year study, this diet was unique in that eggs were eaten for a comparatively long time; they were the only significant food item eaten by white perch adults during two of the study’s three years; and large volumes were eaten per individual. White perch also feed heavily on minnows (Notropis spp.). The collapse of the walleye fishery in the Bay of Quinte on the north shore of Lake Ontario coincided with the increase in white perch population and may have been a result of egg predation and the resulting lack of recruitment.
Another concern is that white perch, actually a species of the bass genus (Moronidae), have hybridized with native white bass in western Lake Erie. These hybrids were first noted in western Lake Erie in the early 1980s, the same time when white perch were increasing in abundance in this area. Since these hybrids are capable of back-crossing with parent species as well as crossing among themselves, they could dilute the gene pool of both parent species. This is the first known natural occurring hybrid in this genus; all other Morone hybrids were artificially produced. This hybridization is probably also occurring in the other Great Lakes.
White perch were first found in the Great Lakes basin in Cross Lake in central New York in 1950. They apparently gained access to the lake via the Erie Barge Canal during the warm weather in the 1930s and 1950s. From the canal system, the species moved down the Oswego River to Lake Ontario. Once in Lake Ontario, they had moved into Lake Erie via the Welland Canal by 1953 and continued to spread to the upper Great Lakes. The first reports of its westward movement through the Great Lakes are as follows: Lake St. Clair, 1977; Lake Huron, 1987; Lake Michigan at Green Bay/Fox River in Wisconsin, May 1988; and Illinois waters of Lake Michigan off Chicago, September 1988. One oddity is that the first sighting of white perch in Lake Superior waters was in 1986 at Duluth Harbor - one year before it was found in Lake Huron and two years before it was seen in Lake Michigan. The Lake Superior population is still restricted to this harbor, possibly because it is the warmest part of that frigid lake. That population likely represents a separate introduction since it does not fit the pattern of western dispersal.
Established in all five Great Lakes and their surrounding states, white perch can also be found in Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska and New Hampshire. White perch have been stocked intentionally in other areas for sport fishing. Their native range is the Atlantic Slope drainages from St. Lawrence-Lake Ontario drainage in Quebec south to the Peedee River of South Carolina. A marine species, they run up coastal streams to spawn.
An excellent panfish highly regarded as a food fish in the Eastern United States, it is not often exploited as a game fish and generally is regarded as undesirable, especially when over-population in fresh waters causes the species to become stunted.