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Fishing the Great Lakes

An Environmental History, 1783–1933

Margaret Beattie Bogue

Publication Year: 2000

    Fishing the Great Lakes is a sweeping history of the destruction of the once-abundant fisheries of the great "inland seas" that lie between the United States and Canada. Though lake trout, whitefish, freshwater herring, and sturgeon were still teeming as late as 1850, Margaret Bogue documents here how overfishing, pollution, political squabbling, poor public policies, and commercial exploitation combined to damage the fish populations even before the voracious sea lamprey invaded the lakes and decimated the lake trout population in the 1940s.
    From the earliest records of fishing by native peoples, through the era of European exploration and settlement, to the growth and collapse of the commercial fishing industry, Fishing the Great Lakes traces the changing relationships between the fish resources and the people of the Great Lakes region. Bogue focuses in particular on the period from 1783, when Great Britain and the United States first politically severed the geographic unity of the Great Lakes, through 1933, when the commercial fishing industry had passed from its heyday in the late nineteenth century into very serious decline. She shows how fishermen, entrepreneurial fish dealers, the monopolistic A. Booth and Company (which distributed and marketed much of the Great Lakes catch), and policy makers at all levels of government played their parts in the debacle. So, too, did underfunded scientists and early conservationists unable to spark the interest of an indifferent public. Concern with the quality of lake habitat and the abundance of fish increasingly took a backseat to the interests of agriculture, lumbering, mining, commerce, manufacturing, and urban development in the Great Lakes region. Offering more than a regional history, Bogue also places the problems of Great Lakes fishing in the context of past and current worldwide fishery concerns.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii-viii


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi

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pp. xii-xvi

Historians have written at length about the economic development of the Great Lakes region, stressing the role of its rich natural resources in making it one of the nation's prominent wealth producers. The growth of the fur trade, the expansion of agriculture, and the exploitation of timber and mineral resources have attracted substantial interest. Yet scholars have given tangential and piecemeal treatment to the fish and water resources...

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pp. xvii-xix

Many archives, libraries, institutions, and people have helped make this study possible. To the University of Wisconsin College Sea Grant Program, I am especially indebted for the research funding in the 1970s that introduced me to the possibilities for research on the Great Lakes fisheries. Later the University of Wisconsin's sabbatical program and the Graduate School's grant of. salary support and travel funds enabled me to...

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1. Legacies from the Wilderness

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pp. 3-15

In the late nineteenth century, fishers, public officials charged with conserving fish resources, and many people in the Great Lakes region expressed concern about the decline of choice commercial species in Great Lakes waters. They spoke alarmingly of crises, danger lines, and extinction. Most believed that the problem had developed in the preceding few decades, and they blamed the fishers. In reality, its roots extended to the...

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Part I. The Rise of Commercial Fishing, 1800–1893

Commercial fishing on the Great Lakes evolved slowly until the mid-nineteenth century, when in response to population growth, wider markets, improved transportation, and new techniques of harvest and preservation, it escalated, reaching a climax in 1889 in an atmosphere of concern about the future of the industry. The following six chapters analyze the growth of the commercial-fishing industry, showing how a complex...

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2. Lake Ontario Salmon in an Early Agricultural-Commercial Economy

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pp. 19-27

The salmon of Lake Ontario (Salmo salar), a landlocked Atlantic salmon, are unique in the annals of Great Lakes commercial fishing. Prized as food and environmentally very sensitive, they survived settlement and development for only a short time, becoming the first of the large commercial species to be decimated (figure 2.1). Legislators in Canada and the United States made them the first target for regulation in the early nineteenth...

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3. Patterns of Growth through 1872

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pp. 28-43

Growth patterns of commercial fishing in the Great Lakes in the nineteenth century varied considerably in place and time, conditioned by market demand and access. Early in the century along the shores of Lakes Ontario and Erie, new residents in undeveloped areas who came primarily in search of farms and not as prospective fishermen caught fish for barter and sale. As noted in the case of Lake Ontario salmon, fish first...

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4. The Expansive Heyday, 1875–1893

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pp. 44-58

Rapid change permeated the Great Lakes fishing industry between 1875 and 1893. Production grew, reaching a high point in 1889 with a 146,284,000-pound harvest, a record exceeded only in 1899 and 1915, both exceptional seasons, and rarely even approached during the twentieth century. The escalation of harvest tonnage to record heights followed by the onset of a long-term irregular downward trend characterized this...

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5. A. Booth and Company Bids for Great Lakes Dominance

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pp. 59-73

Among the Great Lakes wholesale fish dealers in the United States and Canada, the entrepreneur with the grandest vision of how the industry should be organized was Alfred Booth, an English-born Chicago merchant. The labors of his lifetime culminated in 1898 with the organization of "The New Fishery Trust" as the New York Times called it, formally A. Booth and Company, a $5.5 million "consolidation of the...

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6. Fishers of the Great Lakes, 1850–1893

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pp. 74-88

Key to understanding how human activity affected the Great Lakes fish population are the fishermen and their families, those people in closest daily contact with the resource and dependent on it for a livelihood. The fishermen were legendary for their love of independence and their hard labor on the water, whatever the weather. They engaged the forces of nature in a struggle to make a living from the lakes' bountiful supply of...

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7. The Fishers and the Fish

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pp. 89-109

The changing attitudes of Great Lakes fishers toward the resource varied widely during the nineteenth century. From the era of frontier plenty through the Civil War, few questioned its long-term durability. After that, doubts grew, shaped and influenced by individuals' short- and long-term expectations for working the water, perceptions of the abundance and durability of the resource over time, changing economic conditions in the...

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Part II. Great Lakes Waters in a Developing Drainage Basin, 1815–1900

When westward-moving people occupied the southern part of the Great Lakes region beginning in modest numbers in the late eighteenth century and growing to tens of thousands in the nineteenth, their use of land and water resources soon changed the fish habitat. The following three chapters examine the main components of nineteenth-century development and suggest how each influenced Great Lakes fish life.

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8. Agriculture, Lumbering, Mining, and the Changing Fish Habitat

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pp. 113-136

The Great Lakes contain 94,250 square miles of water and act as the catch basin for drainage from a surrounding 201,460-square-mile land area. Given their physical characteristics, their midcontinental location, and their history of human use, particularly in the past 150 years, the lakes have shown greater short-term sensitivity to the development of adjacent land areas than have the North American coastal waters in the...

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9. Commerce, Community Growth, Industrial-Urban Development, and the Changing Fish Habitat

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pp. 137-148

Accompanying and complementing the development of farming, lumbering, and mining in the rural landscape, the growth of commerce, transportation systems, manufacturing, and village, town, and city population centers introduced other kinds of physical changes in the Great Lakes drainage basin that altered lake waters and the kinds of fish life they supported. Nature's ready-made transportation system, the waterways, appealed...

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10. The Fish React: Changing Species in Changing Waters

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pp. 149-171

No one will ever know the number of fish species that vanished from the waters of the Great Lakes in the wake of growing population density, development, and commercial fishing. Undoubtedly, many did, some of them gone before anyone recorded their existence. An idea of the magnitude of loss may be inferred from M. B. Trautman's study of decline in the Sandusky River. Between 1850 and 1976, over half of eighty-eight...

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Part III. Policy Makers and the Great Lakes Fisheries, 1801–1896

Scholars have tended to give nineteenth-century efforts to make and enforce fish and game laws in Canada and the United States short shrift because they did not achieve their stated goals. They deserve far more careful consideration. As conservers of natural wildlife, it is true, these measures failed for the most part to realize their ostensible objectives, but so have many twentieth-century efforts. A careful consideration of the...

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11. The First Regulators: The Provinces and the States

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pp. 175-194

Desires of the early settler-developers in New York and Upper Canada to exploit the bountiful salmon population of Lake Ontario led to the first regulation of Great Lakes fishing. Never since have Canadian and American lawmakers been in such agreement about the need to manage the fisheries. In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the New York legislature and the legislative councils and assemblies of the province of Upper...

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12. Changing Ideas: The United States and the Great Lakes Fishery

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pp. 195-203

The very nature of the federal system cast the American national government in an advisory, fact-finding, nonregulatory role for the fisheries of the American Great Lakes, but indirectly it influenced the thinking of regional fish conservationists on the issue of regulating commercial fishing and on the need for laws controlling the use of lakes, rivers, and streams in ways designed to protect the fish habitat. The federal government...

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13. Canada's Regulated Fishery, 1868–1888

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pp. 204-215

In marked contrast to the primary emphasis on stocking and minimal regulation in the American waters of the Great Lakes, the Dominion of Canada, under the leadership of the Conservative Party, adopted a watchful, protective policy for its Great Lakes fish resource. Canada adhered closely to British colonial models. The Americans opted for unfettered exploitation. The Canadian system of regulation and enforcement,...

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14. Charles Hibbert Tupper and the New Broom, 1888–1896

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pp. 216-237

With the Conservative victory in the election of 1887, the implementation of fishery laws on the Great Lakes stood on the brink of a thoroughgoing shake-up. Charles Hibbert Tupper, a vigorous thirty-five-year-old Harvard-trained lawyer from Nova Scotia who had grown up in a province where many made a living by commercial fishing and who had chosen to follow his prominent father into the political arena, accepted the...

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15. To Save the Fish: The Crisis of the 1890s and the Canadian–American Joint Commission of 1892

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pp. 238-249

By the 1890s, most of the developed regions in the United States and Canada showed clear evidence of environmental problems. In most of these areas, an articulate minority spoke out about what they perceived to be a threat to natural resources from the careless, thoughtless, wasteful ways in which people used them, and the Great Lakes region was no exception. There the consequences of massive deforestation and the excesses...

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Part IV. Toward Lamprey Eve: The Great Lakes Fisheries, 1896–1933

From 1896 to 1933, the problems of the Great Lakes fish population worsened as overfishing continued, pollution of the marine habitat increased, and policy makers at all levels of government struggled in vain to make regulatory conservation a reality. The failure of the attempt in 1908 to secure international joint regulation of Great Lakes commercial fishing, pressures during World War I to produce ever-larger tonnages of...

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16. Commercial Fishing: From Prosperity to Recession

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pp. 253-278

Market forces that drove the commercial-fishing industry from 1896 to 1929 go far in explaining the continued downward spiral of the most valuable fish species of the Great Lakes. Like many segments of the Canadian and American economies in the years between 1896 and 1914, the Great Lakes fishing industry enjoyed a period of recovery from depression doldrums followed by better times. Given the declining harvests of most...

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17. Policy Makers and the Ever-Widening Stain

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pp. 279-296

While harvests eroded the strength of key Great Lakes commercial-fish species in the early twentieth century, continued deterioration in the marine habitat hastened their decline. Ever larger portions of those lake waters, once rich in dissolved oxygen that had supported a cornucopia of salmon, whitefish, trout, herring, and sturgeon, changed to more turbid, fertile, warmer waters that were polluted in varying degrees and acceptable...

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18. Public Policy and the Declining Fish Resource

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pp. 297-320

During the first thirty years of the twentieth century, the governments empowered to regulate fishing on the Great Lakes struggled in vain to stem the decline of whitefish, trout, herring, and sturgeon. In a strongly nationalistic era permeated with progressive advocacy of internationalism and conservation, they worked to shape fishery policies that would ensure the long-term use of the resource, laboring under pressures from a variety...

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19. The End of an Era

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pp. 321-330

In two locations on the Great Lakes, Georgian Bay and Lake Erie, the consequences of aggressive and competitive fishing, the changing marine habitat, and the inability of policy makers to protect the resource converged to signal the coming of the end of an era in the history of the fish population. The years when salmon, whitefish, trout, herring, and sturgeon were the mainstays of the most bountiful commercial fishing on...

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20. Reflections

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pp. 331-337

Authors often conclude their books with a review of historical literature showing how their interpretations differ from those of other authors and shed new meaning on the subject at hand. This book is the first that deals with the fish resources of the Great Lakes considered as a geographic whole, tracing environmental, economic, and policy-making themes from the colonial era of exploration to the Great Depression. It cannot claim...


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pp. 341-392

Glossary of Fish Species

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pp. 393-394


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pp. 395-412


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pp. 413-444

E-ISBN-13: 9780299167639
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299167646

Publication Year: 2000