Great Lakes Fishing History

Great Lakes fishing history is not without its controversy. The impact of the fishing industry was such that it played an important role in the development of Georgian Bay and Lake Huron shoreline communities. It should also be noted the magnitude of this impact was not limited to just this region of the Great Lakes.

Great Lakes Fishing History:
The Fishing Act of 1857

In 1857, the colonial government passed the Fishing Act, which “shifted the commercial fishery from a public right to one vested in the crown.” In 1859, William Gibbard, who 14 years earlier, had supervised the initial settlement of Meaford was named to oversee the industry on Lake Huron, Georgian Bay and Lake Superior.

Gibbard, not unlike other government officials of that era, ignored the Indigenous peoples’ demands to continue their traditional ways. He issued licenses without their consent, believing that they were better off “attending to their farms instead of dabbling in the fisheries”. His actions almost precipitated violence in the region.

A study of Great Lakes fishing history reveals that in the 1860s the area's commercial fishing industry was booming. The American civil war created a huge demand for fish in that market. In response to this market upswing, 800 to 1200 barrels of fish were being shipped by rail from Collingwood in the mid-1860s.  

The growth of the Canadian and American markets meant an increased demand for fresh and salted fish had a huge impact on the Georgian Bay fishing industry. Whitefish was the most popular species in the Canadian market. Ninety-two percent of the fish taken from Georgian Bay were either Whitefish or Lake Trout. In 1883 fishermen harvested one million pounds of Whitefish and by 1891, due to increased market demand, that total had climbed to 1.8 million pounds, which was 25% of the entire whitefish catch in the province of Ontario!

In 1891 southern Georgian Bay fishing interests caught a total 4.6 million pounds of fish. The north channel fisheries reaped a harvest which totaled almost 3.6 million pounds that year. While lake trout and whitefish made up a large part of these amounts, pickerel and sturgeon, which were shipped almost exclusively to the United States, also proved to be an important product for fishermen.  

To facilitate the demands of the markets the area fishing industry experienced immense growth and change during the 1880s and 90s. Steam tugs had been introduced into the industry in the 1870s to meet the demands of the growing market. By 1884 there were 7 of these vessels in operation on Georgian Bay. But, by 1893 that number had more than doubled to 18. In 1883 there were 107 fishing boats in the area, excluding tugs, and more than 200 men involved in an industry that was worth more than $70,000 annually.   

Perhaps the most significant statistic in the Great Lakes fishing history that reflects the phenomenal growth in the fishery relates to the use of gill nets. In 1889, 22,000 fathoms of gill netting was in use. Four years later in 1893 that number had soared to 675,000 fathoms!

The Georgian Bay fishery continued to boom well into this century. During the last half of the 1900s its impact has become less significant. However, it is probably safe to suggest that the commercial fishing industry was an important part of the early growth of this region.

A version of this article appeared in my Local History column in the Owen Sound Sun Times.


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The Great Lakes Raconteur

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