By Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Thank you to Terry Boulton for providing his research for this history.
People have been fishing Lake Ontario and the Niagara River for as long as humans have inhabited these shores. The river, lake, and creeks once had an abundance of fish, which allowed humans to develop an important relationship with our waterfront.
Fishing once provided food, an economy, and a way of life for many in Niagara-on-the-Lake. But a relationship works both ways.
Heavy reliance on this industry without a compromise for a sustainable system meant that there was no viable future.
Indigenous peoples’ fishing methods
For thousands of years, Indigenous People have fished using spears, nets, weirs, hooks, and torches. They sustainably regulated and managed fisheries to ensure the continued existence of this resource for all.
When colonization happened, settlers and Indigenous Nations
fished alongside each other. But over time, Indigenous rights were forced aside and fishing rights became state-controlled in order to make way for the commercial fishing industry.
Fishermen seine fishing on the lower Columbia River, ca. 1900. Photograph courtesy of the University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, UW41493.Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
European settlers had been amazed by the number of fish in the River and Lake. They were plentiful, large, and were vital to feeding a growing population. By the 1840s, a fishing industry had established itself and many locals depended on the fish to support their families.
Enormous catches were hauled, and locals were noted to bring in thousands of whitefish per day. The supply outpaced demand, and so excess fish were burned or left to spoil on the beaches.
Michigan Central Freight Cars at the DockNiagara-on-the-Lake Museum
An Industry Booms
The commercial fishing industry took off when the railway arrived in 1854. Trains allowed the fish to be salted, packed in barrels or on ice, and sent to distant markets at a much faster rate than the fish could naturally reproduce.
But Lake Ontario’s ecosystem was gradually becoming unbalanced. The salmon became locally extinct in Lake Ontario by the 1890s, and one species after another began to vanish. By the end of the 1930s, the resource that seemed inexhaustible was so decimated that it collapsed.
Start of the Fishing Season, 1938. Photograph courtesy of the St. Catharines Museum: St. Catharines Standard Collection, S1938-17-5-2Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Overfishing was certainly a factor in the industry's decline, but other human activities affected the reduction of fish stocks.
The settlement of NOTL involved the clearing of land and the construction of mills along creeks. These activities changed the flow of water, increased erosion, and left behind environmental scars, which damaged spawning grounds, prevented migration, and destroyed habitats.
In the 1870s, there were concerns that the sewage and pollution from the industrial plants along the Niagara River were affecting the health of the fish. Pollutants, chemicals, pesticides, and heavy metals harmed/killed the fish and hindered their ability to find food.
Non-native fish species found their way into the River and Lake, both intentionally and unintentionally. They killed native fish species and competed for food and space...and won.
Fishing Boxes filled with fish. Photograph courtesy of the St. Catharines Museum: St. Catharines Standard Collection, S1938-17-5-9Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
The fishermen refused to accept that they were part of the problem. Instead, they believed that pollution and other environmental concerns were the only reasons for the decline.
Fishing Regulations, 1879Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
Were there any Efforts to Revive the Fisheries?
Yes! Laws, including closed seasons and gear limitations, were in place to try and maintain the stocks in the Lake and River. Unfortunately, the government did not enforce the rules as strictly or as quickly as they could have.
Today, fisheries management has been guided predominantly by ecological metrics, tools, and policies. But this hasn’t been working. There is a push to bring together Western Science and Indigenous Knowledge Systems to help solve the fisheries crisis we are currently still facing.
A group of Niagara-on-the-Lake fishermen, ca. 1920Niagara-on-the-Lake Museum
A few of the fishermen tried to hang onto fishing as a livelihood, but many had to find other employment. The last commercial fishing boat was hauled out of the River in 1976.