Taking Without Regard

The Impacts of Commercial Fishing Practices at Hamilton Harbour and the Surrounding Waterways between 1820 and 1900

Taking Without Regard

The Impacts of Commercial Fishing Practices at Hamilton Harbour and the Surrounding Waterways between 1820 and 1900

Darren Vivian

Hamilton - 2022

At the start of the 19th century, the commercial fishery in Hamilton, Ontario was steadily growing. However, a downturn in the fishing industry in urban port areas was developing around Toronto, and Burlington Bay, on which the city of Hamilton is situated.1 Commercial fishing refers to the practice of catching various species of fish with the intent of selling, trading, or bartering the catch.2 At the beginning of the 20th century, commercial fishing in Hamilton had reached a peak, and also faced a serious problem– four of the primary fish species that local commercial fisheries had come to rely on had undergone a tremendous decrease in numbers. Those species, including lake trout, whitefish, freshwater herring, and sturgeon, were still plentiful as late as 1850, but declined rapidly in the second half of that century. The once plentiful freshwater Atlantic Salmon, an important dietary staple of indigenous communities for generations, would be entirely wiped-out by the end of the 19th century. By investigating the beginnings of these coldwater-species declines, as well as the deterioration of other native species, and how the growth of the commercial fishing industry in Hamilton affected those changes, this paper will argue that overfishing, ineffective regulatory policies, political and commercial exploitation, and water pollution were all factors that worked in combination to wreak havoc on native fish populations.3

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Figure 1: Hamilton Harbour, the major tributaries, and the surrounding waterways referenced in this study

Prior to the settlement of Hamilton as an urban industrial center, and before the onset of the commercial fishing industry, the south-western end of Lake Ontario (where Hamilton is situated) was a tremendously healthy and attractive location for both warm and cold-water fish species (see Figure 1 for reference to the major waterways encompassing Hamilton Harbour).4 As noted by John Holmes in his 1984 report titled “Historical Review of the Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” the natural fish habitat in Hamilton Harbour can be broken into 3 sections: Open Water-Pelagic, Profundal, and Littoral. The pelagic area represents the large open part of the lake that spans outward towards Burlington and Toronto and is home to deep/cold water fish like herring and trout. The bay itself has a natural, deeper, and colder profundal zone that was home to lake trout and lake whitefish. The littoral, or “nearshore” areas were not only home to the warmer water species, but also an important spawning ground for many of the various fish species within the bay. The marshes, sandy bottoms, and grassy/bullrush areas of Cootes Paradise, and the area around the Royal Botanical Gardens, served as spawning areas for local fish species. Due to the natural geography of this part of the lake, which includes water depths that vary between 2 or 3 ft, and up to 75 ft near the middle of the harbour (as per updated data taken from Hamilton Harbour Marine Chart: CA573362), a tremendous variety of healthy fish populations thrived here for centuries. The varied depths, water temperatures, beaches, and inlets created very suitable habitats for a large variety of fish species, and all within a relatively small geographic space. This essay will detail the impacts of human contact with this incredible natural environment, and the damage it subsequently caused in a relatively short period of time.

Overfishing refers to the removal of fish from a habitat which exceeds the species ability to reproduce and replace those lost animals. Figure 2 illustrates the dramatic changes in catch quantities of herring (Coregonus artedi), and whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis), taken from Hamilton Beach and the Hamilton/Burlington Bay using a sampling of years between 1868 and 1883. Note that catch size was measured in “barrels” and later in the century catches were reported in pounds, but often included barrel numbers as well. The barrels that were used to contain and transport fresh and cured fish would weigh 200lbs on average.5 This data was collected from the Canadian Department of Fisheries and Oceans - Annual Reports from the Department of Marine and Fisheries.6

Year Fish # Barrels Fish # Barrels
1868 Herring 364 Whitefish 158.5
1871 Herring 238.5 Whitefish 63
1873 Herring 151 Whitefish 61
1880 Herring 87 Whitefish 35
1883 Herring 243 Whitefish 5

Figure 2

The steep drop in herring catches in 1880 and 1873 aligns with observations noted by T.H. Whillans. These observations showed “declines in herring abundance in the harbour and at the beach during the early 1870’s and 1890’s followed by a dramatic recovery by the turn of the century.”7 Overfishing is cited by John Kerr in his 1860-1898 manuscripts as the primary cause of the herring declines.8 Whitefish catches also decreased dramatically within the harbour between 1868 and 1883. This decline was thought to be the direct result of deteriorating water quality.9 Of course, overexploitation of the harbour whitefish population, as well as the increased use of gill nets were also plausible causes for the steep decline in harbour whitefish populations as well. One could speculate the population resurgence at the turn of the century was aided by the reduction of the commercial fishery for lake whitefish in nearshore areas of the Great Lakes, which was due to the growing fishing industry and the damage to the whitefish's natural habitat.10

Overfishing seemingly began immediately in Hamilton, as regulations surrounding netting practices and catch limits had not yet been developed. Records date the beginning of commercial fishing in Hamilton to seine net fishing along Hamilton beach in the early 1820’s.11 Seine fishing is a method that uses a net hanging vertically in the water, with the bottom being weighed down with sinkers, and its top kept afloat with buoys. A seine is very different from a gillnet, as a seine traps fish by enclosing around them, whereas a gillnet snares fish, usually within the gaps and openings in the meshing. See Figure 3 and Figure 4 for a comparison of seine and gillnets.12

Figure 3: Example of a set seine net

Figure 4: Example of a set gillnet

Unfortunately, this method of fishing is rather destructive, both to fish species and the surrounding marine environment. Lakebed damage, non-selective fishing, and species overexploitation are main examples of the serious negative effects of seine net usage.13 Seine nets in the early 19th century would have been weighed down on the lakebed with large, heavy objects such as rocks, brick, iron, and lead. As the nets moved with the current, the weights would be pushed and pulled in various directions, disturbing and destroying bottom dwelling animals and their habitats. These nets were also non-selective, which means seine nets trapped and often killed many varieties of fish outside of the particular species being targeted. Overexploitation of targeted fish species were particularly susceptible to seine net fishing. Huge amounts of freshwater herring could be trapped by seine nets set close to the surface of the water. These herring would congregate in schools, making it easy to repeatedly snatch large amounts of the fish. Lake trout (Salvelinus namaycush) migrated annually through the Burlington shipping canal into Lake Ontario to spawn. This migration left the trout incredibly vulnerable to seine net fishing, as they were slowed during the migration process, and essentially corralled into the canal as helpless targets.14 The canal was not only an easy spot to overfish the lake trout, but damage to the species was compounded due to the fish not being able to make it to their spawning grounds, thus devastating their ability to reproduce stock for the trout fishery within the bay. It was clear that unregulated netting practices weighed heavily into the problem of commercial overfishing at Hamilton Bay.

In these early days, legislation and public policy which would effectively regulate the commercial fishing industry in Hamilton did not exist. It seemed that anyone with netting, spears, or even a simple fishing pole was able to freely take fish from the local waterways, and profit without restriction. Catches of whitefish and herring caught at Hamilton beach would be sold fresh at the Hamilton Market and Wellington Square, as well as markets in Milton, Dundas, Grimsby, and Stoney Creek.15 Rough Fish, a term used to describe non-commercial species like carp, sheepshead, dogfish, and suckers, were often sold to farmers within the county of Wentworth, presumably for livestock feed or fertilizer.16 An 1823 Act titled “The Better Preservation of the Herring” was passed specifically for the fishery at the outlet of Burlington Bay (later named Hamilton Harbour).17 Information regarding the details of this act, as well as the impact it had on the herring population of the bay, was quite difficult to locate. It would be consistent with catch data in the years ensuing to conclude that it was ineffective in protecting the herring population in the harbour from steep reduction.18 It wasn’t until 1859 that John McCuaig, then Fisheries Superintendent for Upper Canada, implemented fishing stations along Hamilton beach in an effort to regulate the use of seine nets for commercial fishing purposes.19 Enforcement of these designated fishing stations were not strictly enforced until 1864, when John Kerr became Overseer of the Hamilton Division of Fisheries.20 Although gillnets began to replace seine nets around 1870, by 1879 catches were so big that voluntary restrictions were implemented to stop the market from being flooded with an excess of product that exceeded demand.21

Due in part to political pressure from the large commercial fishing companies in both Canada and the United States that fished Lake Ontario, legislation and legal regulation was challenged and often completely disregarded. For example, although regulations on seine and gillnets had been established, it was widely ignored. Catching over regulated limits was common, and enforcement appeared to be very challenging due to jurisdictional confusion.22 In 1822, a border between the US and Canada was established through the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes by the Boundary Commission.23 This division should have clearly separated the legal fishing zones of both countries, however American vessels were regularly accused of fishing outside of those established borders. Entrepreneurs in Detroit exploited Canadian waters in the 1830s. They built a gillnet fishery using canoes and small sailboats and removed valuable whitefish and trout from Canadian fishing grounds within Georgian Bay.24 Regulation through legislation hit a barrier due to the political pressure exerted by commercial fishing companies such as the Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company, as well as those from the United States. American companies like A. Booth and Co. would clash with the Department of Marine and Fisheries and set the stage for massive commercial disregard for habitat, illegal netting practices, and the regular removal of more than allotted takes. Alfred Booth’s company was large, wealthy, and powerful. Its operations affected the fish resources of the Great Lakes tremendously, and its “large presence in Canadian waters exasperated and troubled many Canadians and the Canadian government.”25 According to information taken from the Canadian Sessional Papers from April of 1872, one member of parliament was so vexed by the loss of these Canadian fish resources to Americans that in the course of debate, he confronted the Minister of Marine and Fisheries with the demand "to prevent these encroachments by foreigners."26 As with many of the challenges faced by well meaning conservationists and legislators, big business meant big profit, and this proved to be too potent of a motivator for those willing to break the rules of national fishing boundaries, and disregard policies surrounding catch limits and netting practices completely. It wouldn’t be a stretch to assume the Canadian government at the time also wanted to protect the stream of taxable income flowing from the growing fisheries industry, as it meant a stable source of annual tax revenue.

During the 1830s and 1840s, commercial fisheries were well established throughout the Canadian waters of the Great Lakes, but the largest fisheries were on Lake Ontario. One can imagine the additional stress that these competitive fisheries placed on all commercially viable locations on the lake, but specifically the strain placed upon the comparatively small geographic section at the south-west end, where Hamilton was growing exponentially as a major industrial city. In 1850, the total commercial catch for all Canadian Great Lakes fisheries was an excess of 2 million lbs. By the early 20th century, annual catches of 30 million lbs were commonplace.27 With the Lake Ontario fisheries remaining the largest in the province, the detrimental toll that overfishing and resource exploitation took on the local fish population would have been overwhelming. The tragic story of the land-locked Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario illustrates how the relationship between political disagreements, legislative acts, regulations, and commercial exploitation all worked in concert to eventually drive this once plentiful and beautiful fish to extinction. Despite lawmakers in Canada and the United States targeting them first for regulation in the early nineteenth century (Act for the Preservation of Salmon, 1807), they became the first of the large commercial species to be decimated.28 The Canadian Department of Marine and Fisheries supported 19th century settlers' commercial exploitation of the Lake Ontario salmon. A report written in 1868 noted that some settlers “bought and paid for farms and built houses from the sale of salmon."29 By the 1860s, the Lake Ontario salmon numbers had dropped significantly. Salmon taken in the Bay of Quinte with spears and nets were sold to American markets. Tragically, by 1865, the Lake Ontario Atlantic Salmon was on the verge of extinction. In her book Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783–1933, Bogue notes that the life cycle of the Lake Ontario Salmon made it “highly vulnerable to changing conditions of water and land.30 By the middle of the 19th century, many of the spawning streams used by these fish had been destroyed, blocked, or polluted by the activities of sawmills and other manufacturing industries in and around Hamilton. To this day, the salmon spawning runs at Grindstone and Spencer Creek in Dundas are strictly controlled by the province.31 1897 marked the last record year of Atlantic Salmon in Lake Ontario.32

The final element in the steep decline of fish populations in the Hamilton area was water pollution. Legislation which began in the early days of the commercial fishing industry in Hamilton focused on maintaining the fishery in 3 different ways: Encouraging the reproduction of existing fish stocks, limiting the total catch, and maintaining the environment in which the fish live.33 A variety of factors began to contribute to the poisoning of the water in the harbour, the beach, and the western end of Lake Ontario well before the end of the 19th century. By 1858, the Canadian government had consolidated its existing commercial fishing legislation into a single act, known simply as “The Fishery Act.”34 The danger that polluting the water posed to the fishing industry was recognized as a real and serious threat early in the 19th century, and the Fishery Act took steps to prohibit the dumping of butchered fish organs or ballast into waters used for fishing. The ballast on a ship was simply added weight, used to stabilize a vessel’s center of gravity, and reduce the potential for tipping or capsizing, particularly when the vessel was being loaded or unloaded its cargo. The common material used as ballast was loose stone, and the size and consistency of the stone varied significantly. Stone ballast would be made up of stone of various sizes and shapes, like gravel, sand, or even small boulders.35 When this ballast was no longer required to offset a cargo load, it was often dumped directly into the lake. Delicate spawning grounds on the lake bottom, or nearer the shoreline, could easily be destroyed, thus disrupting the reproduction of existing fish stocks. Limestone was also used as a ship ballast, normally stored beneath the hull of the vessel. Again, when the ballast material was no longer needed to offset or balance a cargo load, it was regularly dumped-off into the lake. It was strictly prohibited to discharge a ship’s lime ballast, or any other chemicals into locations inhabited by fish.36 The reason behind this prohibition was clear, as many of the chemicals that would have been carried onboard these fishing vessels were extremely toxic to local species. Specifically, lime was often used in ship ballast and could raise the pH of the water to levels which was deadly to fish.

In 1868, the Federal Fishery Act was introduced, which included a prohibition on the dumping of sawdust or mill trash into any stream.37 Sawmills operating near Hamilton Bay frequently used dams to control water flow through creeks and streams, which also happened to be the spawning ground of salmon and trout. Spawning beds, along with the fish eggs and food sources, were often washed away, and that was only if the fish were able to migrate through the sawdust and other waste created by the mills in the first place.38 Officials attempted to stop the deliberate dumping of mill waste, but “the political power of the lumber industry was able to resist any effective reforms until at least the turn of the century.”39 The political and commercial power were directly connected, using the importance of profit to justify the continuing contamination of Lake Ontario.

This environmental failure would foreshadow future attempts to mitigate chemical pollution from the emergence of steel manufacturing foundries during the 20th century. Across the nation, industries that created water pollution byproducts appeared to be “economically and politically much more important than the fishery,” and were able to delay or disregard attempts to regulate their waste output into the lake.40 The reproduction of existing commercially viable fish populations was also challenged by the ongoing pollution found within the bay, the beach, and the spawning grounds around the Hamilton area. Essentially, the fish resources could only be sustainable if the fish themselves were provided with suitable environments in which to reproduce. The marshland areas of Cootes Paradise are an example of important spawning grounds for various native fish species that were subject to tremendous damage during the late 1800’s. The deteriorating water quality around Cootes Paradise, as well as damage to the south shore of the bay, was most certainly impacted by the widespread pollution caused by the construction of the Hamilton collector sewers in 1888.41

The sewer system was not the only construction project that would introduce pollutants into the waters of Lake Ontario. Invasive species could also be labeled as “pollution” that affected the native commercial fish populations, and many of those invasive marine species arrived in Hamilton because of the advancement in commercial fishing both in Canada and the United States. The first legitimate report of sea lamprey in Lake Ontario came in 1835. The common belief is that the sea lamprey accessed Lake Ontario from the Erie Canal.42 The canal was constructed to provide a water route for shipping vessels from the Atlantic Ocean to the Great Lakes basin. The ships that transported goods along the Erie Canal would have certainly included those packed with fish, both fresh and cured, from the Atlantic Ocean and the inland freshwater lakes. In the late 1800’s, improvements to the Welland Canal, allowing for a shipping route between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, further granted sea lampreys access to Canadian freshwater commercial fishing locations.43 Sea lampreys (Petromyzon marinus), are parasitic fish native to the Atlantic Ocean which attach themselves to fish using a suction-cup like mouth, and then rip into the fish’s flesh with razor-sharp teeth. Once attached, the lamprey feeds on bodily fluids, making death almost a certainty for the host fish.44 The Lampreys prey on almost every species of large fish in Lake Ontario, devastating the populations of lake trout, sturgeon, whitefish, chinook and coho salmon, and rainbow trout45 serving as another example of the ever-growing commercial fishing industry being linked directly to the loss of local fish species.

After examining the impacts of commercial fishing in Hamilton during the 19th century, it becomes apparent that overfishing, ineffective regulatory policies, political and commercial exploitation, and water pollution all played crucial roles in the eventual collapse of the commercially viable fish populations. The main culprit behind the loss of cold-water fish such as the lake trout, whitefish, and herring were thought to be low levels of dissolved oxygen in the deeper water habitats that those species historically utilized.46 It was the contamination of the lake water by numerous types of industrial, household, and agricultural pollutants that led to this inhospitable environment. John A Holmes, in his 1984 Historical Review of the Hamilton Harbour Fisheries, summarizes the situation with a tremendously sobering statement: “It is clear from the available evidence that even in the absence of exploitation, fisheries rehabilitation specifically for coldwater species, will not be successful unless water quality improves dramatically.”47

  1. Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783-1933 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000), 141. 

  2. OECD, “Glossary of Statistical Terms: Commercial Fishing,” (1998). 

  3. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 278. 

  4. Figure 1: John A Holmes and T.H. Whillans, “Historical Review of the Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” (1984), 4, https://publications.gc.ca/collections/collection_2020/mpo-dfo/Fs97-6-1257-eng.pdf

  5. Allan Bruce McCullough, The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes, (Minister of Supply and Services Canada, 1989), 16, http://parkscanadahistory.com/series/saah/commercialfishery.pdf

  6. Data for Figure 2: Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “Annual Reports of the Department of Marine and Fisheries,” (1868 - 1883), https://publications.gc.ca/site/eng/9.805897/publication.html

  7. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 16. 

  8. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 16. 

  9. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 24. 

  10. “Fish management history,” Government of Ontario, accessed March 2022, https://www.ontario.ca/page/fish-management-history

  11. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 7. 

  12. Figure 3 and Figure 4: McCullough, The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes, 24, 28. 

  13. “Destructive vs Sustainable Fishing,” acciona, (2019), https://www.activesustainability.com/environment/destructive-vs-sustainable-fishing/?_adin=02021864894

  14. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 14. 

  15. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “Annual Reports,” 86. 

  16. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “Annual Reports,” 86. 

  17. A.B. McCullough, “Commercial Fishing on the Great Lakes: Resource

    Management and Technological Efficiency,” Scientia Canadensis

    11(1), 6, https://doi.org/10.7202/800242ar

  18. Department of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, “Annual Reports.” 

  19. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 7. 

  20. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 7. 

  21. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 7. 

  22. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 239. 

  23. S.J. Kerr, “Fish and Fisheries Management in Ontario: A Chronology of Events,” (August 2010), https://www.ontario.ca/page/fish-management-history 

  24. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 30. 

  25. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 59. 

  26. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes

  27. McCullough, “Resource Management,” 7. 

  28. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 19. 

  29. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 24. 

  30. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 22. 

  31. “Fisheries Management Zone 16,” Government of Ontario, accessed March 2022, https://www.ontario.ca/document/ontario-fishing-regulations-summary/fisheries-management-zone-16

  32. Kerr, “Fish and Fisheries.” 

  33. McCullough, “Resource Management” Lakes, 3. 

  34. McCullough, The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes, 6. 

  35. Matthew Julian Gifford, “Everything is Ballast: An Examination of Ballast Related Practices and Ballast Stones from the Emanuel Point Shipwrecks.” (2008): 16. 

  36. McCullough, “Resource Management,” 7. 

  37. McCullough, The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes, 7. 

  38. Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes, 124. 

  39. McCullough, The Commercial Fishery of the Canadian Great Lakes, 17. 

  40. McCullough, “Resource Management,” 17. 

  41. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 72. 

  42. Kerr, “Fish and Fisheries.” 

  43. “Sea Lamprey: A Great Lakes Invader,” Great Lakes Fishery Commission, 2021, http://www.glfc.org/sea-lamprey.php

  44. “Sea Lamprey.” 

  45. “Sea Lamprey.” 

  46. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 73. 

  47. Holmes and Whillans, “Hamilton Harbour Fisheries,” 97.