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Printed on: 05/23/2018


Topic author: craig betz
Posted on: 01/15/2007 23:40:07

The Fresh Water Fishing Capital of the World

At it’s peak in the 1920s, over 140 fishing tugs steamed out of Erie’s harbor, bringing their catch back to the city’s 14 fish processing plants. Commercial fishing was a million dollar a year industry, employing 3,500 men full time. In 1920, the Chamber of Commerce proclaimed Erie “the Fresh Water Fishing Capital of the World.” By the late 1990s Erie’s commercial fishing fleet had dwindled down to just a few boats.

Early Fishing in Erie

* Eriez Indian legend held that the Great Spirit reached his protective arm out into the Lake, forming the peninsula and the calm waters of the bay where they could safely fish from their log canoes. When white settlers first came to the region, experienced Native-American fishermen would trade their surplus catch to the pioneers.
* In the early 1800s, an African-American recluse named McKinney learned to fish from the Indians. He fished from a dugout canoe with a hook and line and sold his catch at Erie’s pier. Ironically, McKinney’s trade contributed to his death when in1815 he choked on a fish bone.
* McKinney was followed by his son-in-law, Benjamin “Bass” Fleming, a veteran of the 1813 Battle of Lake Erie. He also fished with a hook and line but he expanded the business by selling the fish door-to-door.
* Larger scale commercial fishing came to Erie in the 1830s when Thomas Horton and David Fowler began to fish for herring in the bay using weighted seine nets. In the 1840s, these competitors began seining in Lake Erie, catching the popular and plentiful whitefish.

The Fishing Fleet

* The growing popularity of whitefish in the 1840s led Erie’s fishermen to take to the water. They used small cat-rigged sailboats, typically between 25 and 35 feet in length with a three-man crew. In 1856 there were only four of these boats, but by 1884 the fleet numbered fifty.
* Steam-powered fishing tugs were introduced in 1881. The maximum length of these boats was 65 feet; vessels over that length required a licensed captain and engineer and required more expensive fishing licenses.
* By 1900, Erie’s fishing fleet was composed of ten sailboats and 72 steam powered tugs. After 1900, tugs began to be built with metal hulls. As net technology changed, tugs were modified to the “turtle back” design.

The Fish

An 1842 ad for preserved white fish.

* In the early days, fishermen caught any fish they could, including, bass, crappies, yellow pike (or walleye) and catfish. Other species came in and out of popularity along with their availability. In 1887 alone, Erie fishermen brought in nearly 7 million pounds of fish, including 2,300,000 lbs. of blue pike, and 1,200,00 lbs. of whitefish.
* Lake Herring (or cisco) were much sought after but became scarce by 1925.
* Whitefish became popular in the 1840s, but by the 1880s, fishermen were worried about declining populations. Even after the opening of a whitefish hatchery in 1885, the species was in serious decline by 1900.
* Sturgeon, originally considered a nuisance because the huge fish often damaged nets, were first taken in the 1870s only for their caviar. Later, smoked sturgeon meat became popular; by 1950s, the species had become very scarce.
* Blue pike, a sub-species of walleye, became a very popular commercial catch in the 1920s, but disappeared from the lake in the late 1950s and are believed to be extinct.
* Yellow perch, originally considered a nuisance fish, became popular around 1925 but are now becoming scarce.

Fishing Nets

Fishing nets evolved and became more effective over time, leading to greater catches.

* Seine nets: (1830s) suspended vertically under the water with floats on the top edge and weights on the bottom edge; the net is drawn into a circle, trapping fish in the center.
* Pound Nets: (1865) used nets staked into the bottom to herd the fish into a “pound” where the fish were trapped until harvested by the fisherman.
* Gill nets: (1854) long nets (up to a quarter of a mile long and ten feet high) suspended underwater by means of weights and floats. The fish swim into the nets and are caught by their gills. Gill nets used locally until outlawed in 1996.
* If all gill nets used by Erie fishermen were placed together, they would extend from Erie to Philadelphia and New York City and almost back again.
* Trawling: a sled is towed along the bottom, it forces fish into a large parachute-shaped net attached to the sled.
* Trap nets: since 1996, the only net type that can be used by Erie commercial fishermen.

Fishing-Related Industries

Many related businesses thrived during Erie’s commercial fishing heyday:

* Boat builders like Paasch, Lund and Nolan designed, manufactured and repaired many of the fishing tugs in the US and Canadian fleets.
* Erie companies like Skinner Engine and American Boiler provided the engines and boilers that ran the tugs.
* Sail makers like A.J. Black made and repaired sails.
* Chandlers supplied equipment to fishermen.
* Net repair was often done by local women.
* Processing plants: 14 plants purchased, processed and shipped the fish. Many of these plants also owned and operated pound nets and fishing tugs.
* Refrigeration: originally fish were preserved using ice cut from the bay in winter. In the 1860s a freezing method using ice and salt was perfected, enabling Lake Erie fish to be shipped by rail to New York City.
* Fish markets supplied the fresh catch to the public and restaurants. Area restaurants were famous for their fresh Lake Erie fish dinners.

Why the Decline?

* Over-fishing devastated Lake Erie’s fish population. There were no limits on fish catches and fishing was done year-round. Conservation practices were put into effect only after it was too late. Blue pike, whitefish, lake herring and sturgeon all became scarce from over-fishing.
* Pollution of Lake Erie also damaged fish populations. If species did not die from the pollution, they were so tainted they were not safe to eat. While Lake Erie has seen cleaner waters over the past 30 years, pollution from past years still causes fish consumption advisories throughout the Lake Erie region.
* The introduction of alien fish species changed the ecosystem of the Great Lakes. Some species were accidentally introduced (the sea lamprey, alewife, ruffe and gobie) others were introduced for sport fishing (coho salmon) or as feeder fish for game species (smelt).

Sport Fishing

While commercial fishing has all but disappeared from Erie, sport fishing has become a popular recreational activity. An average of 1.5 million fish are caught by anglers each year in the lake, bay and tributaries. Lake Erie is considered the undisputed “walleye & small mouth bass capital of the world.” Other popular game fish include yellow perch, largemouth bass, steelhead, coho salmon, brown trout, muskellunge, northern pike and pan fish like bluegill and crappie.

Current Status of Lake Erie Fish

Extinct (species that occurred but no longer exist)

Endangered (species in imminent danger of extinction)
Cisco or Lake Herring Eastern
Sand Darter
Lake Sturgeon
Northern Brook Lamprey
Redfin Shiner
Spotted Gar

Threatened (species that may become endangered within the foreseeable future)

Extirpated (No longer present in Lake Erie but exist elsewhere)
Deepwater Sculpin
Spoonhead Sculpin

Candidate (species being studied for addition to the above lists)
American Brook Lamprey
Horneyhead Chub
Longnose Gar

For more detailed information on commercial fishing in the Erie region we recommend:

Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History 1783-1933, by Margaret Beattie Bouge, Universtiy of Wisconsin Press, 2001.

Home Port Erie by Robert J. Macdonald and David Frew, Erie County Historical Society, 1996.

The Lake Erie Quadrangle: Waters of Repose by Dave Stone and David Frew, Erie County Historical Society, 1993.

Fishing Boats at Erie, PA.
(EMM Collection)

"Lifting Lake Erie Pound -Net"
This c. 1890 engraving shows fishermen hauling a pound net into their sailboat. A new steam tug and traditional cat-rigged sailboats can be seen approaching the fishing grounds.
(EMM Collection)

Erie's fishing fleet today
(EMM Collection)

Union Fish Company
(ECHS&M MacDonald Colln.)

Related Links
PA Hunt and Fish
Fish Erie
PA Fish and Boat Commission
Hunting and Fishing in the Great Lakes region

©All Rights Reserved/Flagship Niagara League


Reply author: DOUBLE EAGLE
Replied on: 01/16/2007 04:51:58

Very interesting Craig, thanks !!!! You just have too much time to look this stuff up, but I'm glad !!

Reply author: baitdave
Replied on: 01/16/2007 09:03:45

I'm glad too, thanks Craig!

Very good and interesting data you drop on here!


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