Whither the Salmon?

Paul Kane, 'Fishing by Torchlight' 1849-56. Courtesy of the Royal Ontario Museum, ©ROM.

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To hear some early European travelers tell it, the most delightful sight to behold in the Lake Ontario region—besides Niagara Falls, of course—was indigenous people fishing with torches and spears. In 1807, German land speculator Christian Schultz wrote, “Ten or twelve of these canoes moving about irregularly on the lake, on a fine calm evening, with the reflection of their lights, like so many lines of fire, extending from each object to a centre on which you stand, afford a most pleasing prospect, and far exceed, in my opinion, the most brilliant display of artificial fire-works.”[1]

I came across numerous such accounts in the course of researching a book on the Iroquois in the era of the American Revolution. These vignettes seemed to lend themselves to a nice, simple project: an article demonstrating the importance of salmon to the indigenous peoples of Lake Ontario. However, as I accumulated more data on the Lake Ontario salmon fishery, testimonials admiring the abundance of fish and the skill of fishers were quickly joined by expressions of concern for the fish population. These came surprisingly early, preceding by decades the construction of high dams on rivers and streams or the introduction of large quantities of industrial chemical pollutants. By 1807, both New York and Upper Canada had passed laws to limit the harm of human activity to the fish. By the middle of the century, salmon were quite scarce. By century’s end, they were gone. A straightforward story about indigenous cultures now became a more complex foray into environmental history.[2]

Map of Lake Ontario, 1851. Library and Archives Canada

What accounted for the rapid decline of Lake Ontario’s Atlantic salmon? After the American Revolution, settlers flocked to both sides of Lake Ontario. As game declined with the new settlers’ clearing of land, indigenous people intensified their fish catching, both for their own consumption and for sale to the newcomers. As had been the case with the beaver in an earlier century, traditional harvest limits appear to have been overridden by immediate need. Indigenous beliefs in grandfather spirits traditionally moderated hunting intensity, but such beliefs were not readily compatible with the concept of extinction. For indigenous people, the prospect of future reconciliation between humans and the spirits of their prey always held out hope of a ‘reset’.

But the indigenous peoples cannot be held primarily responsible for the extirpation of the salmon for the simple reason that salmon fishing was not left in their hands. As effective and entertaining as indigenous spearfishing might have been, settlers built millponds that made the job much easier for themselves. The newcomers took salmon in staggering quantities. The Erie Canal increased demand exponentially by bringing tens of thousands more settlers, hastening the importation of pound nets from Scotland. Seth Green, a Rochester fish merchant, recalled that in the 1830s he sold “tons” of salmon. After five years, only a few salmon were left, he admitted.[3]

And while more salmon were being caught, there were, by 1820, fewer salmon to catch. From the 1780s onward, their habitat came under significant pressure. Even small sawmills altered water flow, and the reduction of wood to potash and sawdust resulted in diminished water quality. Perhaps more importantly, deforestation increased the seasonal variability of the temperatures of salmonids’ natal streams. Stream waters became colder in winter and warmer in summer. Salmonid young became distressed at both ends of the range.

Great Lakes pound net. Wikimedia Commons

Contemporaries were not unaware of what was happening. Indeed, in 1815, New York’s governor, DeWitt Clinton, opined, “the cultivation of the country has had a prodigious effect on the diminution” of fish.[4] He specifically cited deforestation, runoff, and the drainage of wetlands as problems. Of course, then as now, public officials’ ecological awareness didn’t necessarily prevent their making decisions with devastating environmental impacts. Clinton was the prime mover behind the Erie Canal, which brought not only hungry settlers to the region, but perhaps also invasive species to the Great Lakes.

So how did people respond to the decline in salmon numbers as the century progressed? Ojibwe Methodist preacher Peter Jones said that the spirit of the fish had departed as a result of the rising settler involvement in the fishery. (He didn’t say anything about the Ojibwes’ own increasingly market-driven harvesting.) Laws were passed, but generally ignored. White fishermen preferred to lose the salmon than submit to restrictions on their activities: there were, after all, other fish in the lake. Owners of mills, factories, and canals that dammed the streams had the political clout to use (and abuse) waterways without interference. In the end, the only solution that gained wide public support was the nascent science of fish breeding. Indeed, for their efforts to make the salmon reappear without inconveniencing anyone, Samuel Wilmot of Newcastle and Seth Green of Rochester were treated as heroes on their respective sides of the lake.

Of course, fish breeders’ blustery boasts of fish aplenty and forever did not quite pan out. Nature proved too unwieldy. After more than a century, hatching efforts have sufficed to maintain a recreational Pacific salmon fishery in the lake, although not a sustainable one. Efforts to revive the Atlantic salmon population are ongoing.

Last year, a mini-series of thoughtful essays in The Otter/La loutre urged the development of ‘ascentionist’ narratives of environmental history—stories that, without becoming uncritical, leave space for hope. The case of Lake Ontario’s Atlantic salmon suggests how difficult it is to distinguish between hope of the real and illusory varieties. In this instance, one might argue that hope was, in fact, part of the problem. Faith in ritual and then scientific solutions preempted painful conservation measures and enabled continued exploitation and habitat degradation. For humans, hope provided a comforting promise of release from the consequences of their actions. For the salmon, it proved less useful.

[1] Christian Schultz, Travels on an inland voyage through the states of New York, Pennsylvania… (New York, 1810), 22-3.

[2] Karim M. Tiro, “A Sorry Tale: Natives, Settlers, and the Salmon of Lake Ontario, 1780-1900” The Historical Journal 59 (2016), 1001-26.

[3] “Report of special conferences with the American Fish-Culturists Association,” Report of the commissioner for 1872 and 1873, US Department of Fish and Fisheries (Washington, D.C., 1874), 768-70.

[4] DeWitt Clinton, “An introductory discourse,” Transactions of the Literary and Philosophical Society of New York 1 (1815), 184.

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Karim Tiro

Karim Tiro is Professor of History at Xavier University. He is the author of The People of the Standing Stone: The Oneida Nation from the Revolution through the Era of Removal (Amherst, 2011).

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