The Onondaga Fishery: From Sustainable Salmon to Carp for Sport

by JE Cope Savage

The notion of North America as a vacant and virgin wilderness at the time of the first European migrations was an error. Readily available salmon and other foods were a pleasant surprise to immigrants, yet their records rarely took notice of what responsible actions made that so. Human activity had conserved a natural abundance for generations.

For centuries the Onondagas and other people of the land carefully interacted with the environment across the region. To Europeans, the Onondaga fishery was a natural resource as impressive as the corn fields that stretched for miles. Nearly 400 years later, Onondaga County continues to be agriculturally productive, yet it ceased to be a major food-quality freshwater fishery. Several activities in the past 200 years contributed to the Onondaga fishery’s decline.

In the 1600s the region had few visible human boundaries until stockades went up around villages. Visitors remarked on the food and fur bearing animals that roamed the region, and noted local inhabitants spearing or netting fish and using fish-weirs made of stone. (A large stone fish-weir survived in the Seneca River west of Baldwinsville until the 20th century.) Father LeMoyne observed, “Onondaga lake abounds with fish—with salmon-trout and other fish.” A few years later Father Dablon added, “the eel is so abundant there in the summer that some take with a harpoon as many as a thousand in a single night.” The Europeans ignored the unmarked borders, or the traditional restrictions about when to gather or not gather food, or how a huge harvest might be shared.

Each Has a Place

Yet, in 1753, Vanderkemp noticed that native fishing spots were actually not random at all; “each one has his own place.” He burbled at the variety of fish available at that time, “I tasted within a short time a dozen different species, the one contending with the other for pre-eminence, the least of these affording a palatable food.”

Beginning around 1795, the fish habitats were diminished by five factors: sediment from agricultural and salt industry practices, blocked or slowed streams from mills and canals, loss of wetlands from salt industry expansion, salt industry toxins, and excessive nutrients from agriculture and Syracuse’s trash and sewage system.

Early salt industry and agriculture eroded the hills around Onondaga Lake. The lake shore had been a bog, but in “clearing up of the hills in the neighborhood” around the lake, “sand, gravel and other substances, have been washed down…and become so solid, that loaded teams can now be driven along the beach.” (Clark, 1849) The “clearing up” was to harvest wood to fire the salt drying, and to expose land for agriculture. This damaged habitat in unforeseen ways.

Canals and mills that prevented fish from reaching feeding or spawning grounds, however, limited fish migration. When canals slowed down the movement of water, the water held less of the oxygen needed by active “cold water” fish.

Flashing Salmon

After the Civil War, a resident reminisced, “In the spring of 1810, with two other boys, I was walking of a pleasant evening in the vicinity of the Onondaga creek, a mile and a half south of the site of the present city of Syracuse, then a tangled swamp, inhabited mainly by frogs, water-snakes and owls….Our attention and delight were excited by seeing bright lights moving, as we supposed, along the banks of the creek. On approaching, however, we discovered Onondaga Indians with pine knot torches and clubs, killing salmon, whose fins and backs were seen as they were ascending the creek in shallow water over the rifts. The Indians good naturedly lent us clubs and gave us the benefit of their torches, until each had captured a salmon, with which we departed for our homes in jubilant spirits. Most of the inhabitants of Syracuse find it hard to believe that salmon were ever taken south of the city....” -Thurlow Weed, 1874.

After the fragmentation of the fast flowing waterways and the increase in sedimentation, other assaults on fish productivity followed. The human population was growing and had an appetite for fish.

In the 1880s the salt industry adopted the chlor-alkali Solvay process, and dumped its calcium chloride waste into Onondaga lakeshore wetlands, or directly into the lake. Disposal in the wetlands continued to the 1980s.

In the 1890s the Syracuse Common Council proposed hauling garbage to the lake because that seemed preferable to the stinking dumps on urban streets. In 1892 the city built sewer pipes that routed raw sewage to Onondaga Creek. These are another source of excessive nutrients such as ammonia and phosphorus that foster microbiota that can consume available oxygen.

In the late 1800s some other fishing spots in the county were remarkably undamaged. Before the Barge Canal altered the Seneca River, the river still supported large migratory fish. A 67-pound sturgeon was taken from the Seneca River near Jack’s Reef in 1895.

Yet losses were cumulative and regional. In 1908, Beauchamp grieved, “native brook trout, once abundant, has now but a small range, partly from too much fishing; quite as much from lack of proper food....All our creeks and rivers once swarmed with salmon in their season....Fine white fish, of excellent flavor, were formerly caught in Onondaga lake, but it is said they have left it now.”

What is Left for Now?

The Anglers Association of Onondaga’s 1907 prize list included bass, three kinds of trout, perch, pike and pickerel; a much shorter list than Vanderkemp’s 1753 menu. The ‘winning’ brook trout in 1907 was a mere nine inches long. No brook trout records are listed for 2004, as none met the minimum qualifying weight of four pounds. Brook and lake trout are native to New York, unlike brown trout from Europe and rainbows from the Pacific Northwest, both introduced in the late 1800s.

Despite the 200 years of blocked migration routes, warming water, sediment, toxins, sewage, and over-fishing, the region continues to support a “cool water” fishery that includes bass, carp, walleye, white perch, pumpkinseed, bluegill, crappie, bullhead, tiger muskelunge and channel catfish. The main arteries of clear cold well-oxygenated water are now largely altered into smooth canals or slow waters that do not support “cold water fish” such as sturgeon, salmon and trout, yet we can see some signs of survival and even improvement. Trout can be caught in colder, cleaner upstream tributaries and in some lakes. A sturgeon was recently captured in Oneida Lake, one that had been stocked in 1995. Contamination from industrial waste limits eating fish that are caught. An exception is Skaneateles Lake which contains trout, cisco and landlocked salmon; the lake’s 250-foot depth ensures cold water; its role as drinking water for the City of Syracuse has protected it from contamination.

For centuries Onondaga enjoyed a year-round diet of fish: fresh salmon, whitefish, eels, lake trout, brook trout and others. We might ask, what was it that they did so well? Designated fishing areas were only a part of their success. Their intimate understanding of the region and their respect for the laws of nature were, and continue to be, something we might all learn.

For further reading about fish natural history or some native perspectives on resource management:

Anonymous. (1892) "The Garbage of Syracuse." Syracuse Daily Journal, Sat. July 2, 1892. p 4.

Beauchamp, William M. (1908) Past and Present of Onondaga County, New York. New York: S.J. Clark Publishing Co. p 42-50.

Clark, Joshua H. V. (1849) Onondaga: or Reminiscences of Earlier & Later Times. Stoddard and Babcock. Syracuse, NY.

Lyons, Oren et al. (ed.) (1992) Exiled in the Land of the Free. Clear Light Publishers.

Patterson, Neil. (Undated) "The Fish." p.44-50, in Words That Come Before All Else. Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force.

Tango, Peter J. and Neil H. Ringler. (1996) "The Role of Pollution and External Refugia in Structuring the Onondaga Lake Fish Community." Lake and Reservoir Management, 12(1):81-90.

Webster, Dwight A. (1982) "Early History of Salmon in New York." New York Fishery and Game Journal, 29 (1): 26-44.