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 fisherys 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 fishwith 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 Syracuses trash and
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.
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 Jacks
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 Onondagas 1907 prize list included bass, three
kinds of trout, perch, pike and pickerel; a much shorter list than Vanderkemps
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 lakes 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.
Optional: 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."Lakeand Reservoir Management, 12(1):81-90.
Webster, Dwight A. (1982) "Early History of Salmon inNew York."New York Fishery and Game Journal, 29 (1): 26-44.