Long Point Environmental Folio, Chapter 6 J.G. Nelson and K.L. Wilcox, Editors, 1996

Fisheries of Lake Erie and the Long Point Area*

Brian Craig

*This chapter is largely derived from Craig, B. 1993. "Fisheries of Lake Erie and the Long Point Area: Past and Present" Long Point Environmental Folio Series. Technical Paper #4. Heritage Resources Centre, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario

Lake Erie Fisheries

Much of our knowledge of the fish of Lake Erie arises from the catches made by commercial fishing. Caution must be exercised when interpreting the statistics on commercial fishery landings in Lake Erie, as the majority of the published data does not take into account the amount of effort exerted by commercial fishing. The amount of effort the commercial fishery exerts on the fish populations depends on a host of factors including restrictive legislation, tariffs, unions, boycotts, seasonal price changes, species abundance, storms, duration of the fishing season, capital limitations, developments in transportation, fish processing and communication technology; and market demand. (Cox 1992)

Table 1 was constructed using information from descriptions of the history of the commercial fishery of Lake Erie. Upon reviewing Table 1 three trends become apparent. Firstly, the market constantly grew, spurred by greater demand during the war of 1812, the American Civil War, and the Second World War. The expansion of the railway system, improvements in communications and transportation, and innovations in fish processing all contributed to the ability to meet increased market demand. Secondly, those who were fishing constantly introduced new and more efficient technology for capturing fish. Thirdly, the market demand and increasing fishing technology continue to change the fish populations and species composition of Lake Erie.

Table 6.1 Market Stimulation, Fishing Technology and Changes in Fish Species, 1790-1990 (from Craig, 1993)

Decade Market Stimulation Fishing Technology Changes in Fish Species
1790 Prior to 1860 almost all fish were either sold fresh or salted because transportation was not rapid enough to move them to distant markets markets were limited so that hook and line fishery was adequate to supply local demand NA
1810 food requirements for war of 1812 increased fishery effort NA NA
1820 expanding poulation in the then American mid-west led to increase in fishing effort linen seine nets were employed to increase catch NA
1850 NA pound (or pond) nets became popular
-handmade cotton and twine gill nets were introduced in 1852
1860 food requirements for American Civil War led to increase in fishery effort NA Lake Trout lost as a large commercial catch
1870 S.H. Davis of Dtroit patented a system for freezing fish allowing access to new markets "ready-made" cotton and linen gill nets became available
steam powered fishing boats were introduced
1880 NA NA Sturgeon catch peaked in mid 1880's
-United Stated catch of Herring and Whitefish peaked during decade
1890 railways were expanding on the north shore of Lake Erie allowing rapid transportation of catch introduction of gill nett lifter
-introduction of more efficent trap nets and fyke or hoop nets
Lake Trout annual catches exceeded 50 metric tons in late 1800's
1900 advent of telephone allowed instant access to larger markets -bull net (type of gill net over 5 m in depth) was introduced (bull nets were used primarily for Herring but were banned by 1932 because of incidental catched of other fish species)
-cheaper cotton gill nets were imported from Scotland
-Sturgeon no longer commerciall significant
-Lake Trout no longer commercially significant
1910 NA -steam tugboats were replaced by cheaper diesel powered tugs
-introduction of steel hulled fishing boats
-Lake Herring catch peaked in 1918
-Lake Whitefish catch experiences serious decline
-Sauger catch peaked in 1915
1920 Kolbe family of Port Dover developed a better way of freezing fresh fillets, allowing access to larger markets gasoline tugs were replaced by economical diesel powered tugs
-introduction of steel hulled fishing boats
-Lake Herring catch fell drastically in 1925
-Yellow Perch started to become commercially important
1930 general economic depression may have reduced commercial fishgin effort NA NA
1940 food shortages during the Second World War stimulated fish consumption -cotton gill nets were replaced by nylon nets which were up to 3 times more efficient
-electronic fish finders and radar became available
Lake Herring catch experienced a peak in 1946 and then crashed, then rapdily declined during the 1950's
-Lake Whitefish catch peaked in 1949 then rapidly declined in 1950's
-Blue Pike catches fluctuated widely
1950 NA fishing technique trailing was introduced -Sauger commercially extinct in 1955
-Yellow Perch catches increases
-White Bass peak catch in 1954
-Smelt fishery increased rapidly
1960 Omstead Foods of Wheatly Ont. developed a machine for processing Smelt NA -Lake Whitefish, Lake Herring and Blue Pike were all commercially extinct by 1960
-Yellow Perch and Smelt contributed to over two-thirds of Canadian catch during the 1960's
-White Bass fishery grew but fell victim to mercury pollution in the western basin and was closed down
1970-1990 NA NA Smelt, an exotic species dominates the commercial fishery of Lake Erie

An examination of the Total Commercial Fish Production for Lake Erie (Figure 1) reveals that fish production has fluctuated between a low of 13,000 metric tons in 1928 and highs of 34,000 metric tons in 1915 and 1956 respectively, with a mean of 22,000 metric tons for the period 1915-1990. The figure shows that the total biomass of fish harvested from Lake Erie has remained fairly constant. However, when one studies individual fish species it is readily apparent that the fishery in Lake Erie has changed drastically since 1915.

Stresses on the Great Lakes Fishery

When trying to determine the causes of the changes in fish species and the fish population as a whole, it is obvious that commercial fishing is only one of many stresses that could influence the Lake Erie fishery. The three greatest stresses appear to be:

1. Fishing effort

2. Environmental modification

3. Exotic species

Summary of Norfolk County Commercial Fishery

Prior to 1900 the fishery along the shores of Old Norfolk county was conducted primarily by using pound and seine nets. From the early 1900's until the late 1950's gill nets were the principal method of fishing until the advent of trawling for rainbow smelt which is now responsible for the greatest percentage of the catch.

As the demand for fish grew, larger boats were employed to set and service the nets. These boats required a safe harbour from the frequent Lake Erie storms. The Lynn River, where it empties into Lake Erie at Port Dover, provided the best protection of any natural harbour in Norfolk County. Consequently, the majority of the fishing activity has been undertaken from this harbour. Aside from the relatively small hoop and seine fishery in the Inner Bay, Port Dover is the only active commercial fishing port in Norfolk County today.

Figure 6.1 Total Commercial Fish Production of Lake Erie, 1915-1990 (from Craig, 1993).

The first fish processing plant was constructed in Port Dover in the late 1870's and many others followed. The rapid changes in fish species composition and abundance, as well as consumer preference, contributed to the demise of many processing plants.

From the late 1800's to the late 1920's the fishery was dominated by Blue Pike (See Appendix 1 for scientific names) and Lake Herring (Figures 2-4). Following the Lake Herring population crash in the late 1920's, fishing effort was then concentrated on Blue Pike and Lake Whitefish until both species experienced a population crash during the 1950's (Figure 5). Blue Pike, now presumed extinct in Lake Erie, (Hatch et al. 1990) accounted for over two-thirds of the total catch in 1950 (Figure 6). Fishing effort was then directed towards Yellow Perch and Rainbow Smelt (Figure 7). By 1980 the fishery was dominated by the harvest of Rainbow Smelt (Figure 8). Between 1980 and 1990 the Rainbow Smelt harvest declined by about 1,700,000 kgs. This decrease is reflected in the percentage increase in Yellow Perch, Walleye, White Bass and White Perch in the total harvest of Norfolk County fish (Figure 9).

The Norfolk County commercial fishery has changed substantially over the decades. The fishery was considerably more diverse in the early years. In 1901 eight species of fish accounted for at least 1% of the total harvest respectively (Figure 3). By 1980 the fishery relied on only two species, Yellow Perch and an exotic species, Rainbow Smelt (Figure 8). Another invader, White Perch, has shown substantial population growth in the last ten years. Both the Yellow Perch and Smelt are now experiencing stress.

Long Point Inner Bay Commercial Fishery

A seine net fishery has operated in Inner Long Point Bay for at least 120 years (Figure 10). Hoop nets were used for a few years in the early 1880's and in most years since 1915. (Cox, 1993) Fishing effort is concentrated in the spring and fall. The period from May 13 to August 31 has been reserved, by regulation, for the sports fishery. (Hamley and MacLean, 1979)

Inner Bay Fish Community Transformations

The fish community and fisheries of Long Point Inner Bay have changed significantly during the past 150 years. Whillans (1979) assembled information on the Inner Bay fisheries including: habitat descriptions and inventories; various reports; old government files; surveyors' diaries; naturalists' notes; overseers' and fishermen's papers. He conducted interviews with fishermen and local residents to supplement these sources as few written records exist for certain time periods, particularly from 1915-1950. (Whillans, 1979)

Figure 6.2 1881 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

< h5 align=justify>Figure 6.3 1901 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.4 1920 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.5 1940 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.6 1950 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.7 1960 Commericial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993).

Figure 6.8 1980 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.9 1990 Commercial Fishery Species Composition, Norfolk County (from Craig, 1993)

Figure 6.10 Some Fishing Techniques Employed by Lake Erie Commercial Fishers

A Gill Net (G.F. Adams and D.P. Kolenosky, 1974)

A Pound Net (Prothero, F., 1973)

A Seine Net (G.F. Adamas and D. P. Kolenosky, 1974)

Whillans (1979) identified seven time periods of "fish community transformation", a term used to denote a time of apparently considerable change in the fish community of the Inner Bay. He states:

"These (time periods) were arbitrarily selected so that changes within periods could possibly be attributed to similar stimuli or stressors, making interpretation easier. This approach was partly successful, although the interpretations are admittedly sketchy." (Whillans, 1979)

The results of his research on fish community transformation in the Inner Bay are presented in Table 2.

Table 6.2 Inner Bay fish Community Transformations, 1868-1979 (Craig, 1993)

Period Transformation Cause of Transformation
1868-1877 -increase of Muskellunge
-decline of Northern Pike
An escalation of pound netting at the mouth of the Inner Bay captured proportionally more Northern Pike than Muskellunge. The Pike were more widley distributed than the Muskellunge, that tended to concentrate along the soutern shore of the bay.
1880-1889 -decline of Northern Pike and Yellow and/or Blue Walleye Both Northen Pike and Walleye were exploited by the seine fishery and suffered some stress, especially walleye which was a preferred food fish. The mouth of Big Creek was diverted through a dredged channel for lumbering and the rockey spawning beds were likely silted-up due to deforestation. Aquatic vegetation was choking up the waterway.
1892-1910 -increase of Carp and White Bass
-decline of Walleye, Smallmouth Bass, Largemouth Bass, Northern Pike, Yellow Perch, Whitefish, Sturgeon, Herring and Blue Walleye.
The decreased abundance of Inner Bay fish especially the offshore migrant; Whitefish, Sturgeon, Herring and Blue Pike, appeared to be associated with peaking gill net activity. The decline of Walleye and Yellow Perch was attributed to the construction of a dam near the mouth of Big Creek which barred access to spawing localities. A shift in commercial seining effort to the south shore of the bay may have depleted stocks of Lange and Smallmouth Bass which spawned primarily along that shore. White Bass and Carp may have proliferated in responses to the declines of the other species.
1924-1937 -increase of Sea Lamprey
-decline of Strugeon, Muskellunge and Walleye.
Lake Sturgeon suffered from intense commercial fishing pressure. The Muskellunge population declined severely while not under any fishing pressure and Walleye population fell when fishing effort remained relatively steady. In the later 1920's, a causeway, which cuts across Big Creek marsh and provides reseidents of Long Point with quick access to the mainland, was constructed. The only opening in the causeway is a small bridge which allows the passage of Big Creek. Both Walleye and Muskellunge relied, at least partially, on the marsh of spawing and juvenile habitat. The causeway may have disrupted the spawning of the adults and the survival of juveniles. The marsh plant growth may have been altered due to the input of high phosphorus agriculture fertilizers in the surrounding watershed.
1943-1955 -increase of Whitefish and Herring followed by collapse
-decline of Smallmouth Bass followed by increase
-collapse of Walleye and Blue Pike
-decline of Rock Bass, Crappies, Smelt, Alewife, Rainbow Trout and Goldfish
Whitefish and Herring stocks recovered breifly, then collapsed, due primarily to commercial exploitation. Walleye and Blue Pike also succumbed to intense fishing pressure. Smallmouth Bass intitially declined but subsequently recovered, following enforcement of a longer closed season during the spawning period.
1958-1969 -increase of Yellow Perch, White Sucker, Rock Bass and Crappies
-decline of White Bass and Smallouth Bass, Bullheads, Catfish, Bowfin, Pumpkinseed
-initial increase of Carp followed by decline
The increasing nutrient enrichment of the bay may have contributed to the greater relative abundance of Carp, Perch, Suckers, Rock Bass and Crappies. The decline of Smallouth Bass may be attributed to an increase in sport fishing pressure. The development of a larket for live fish may have been contributed to the decline of the liv market spcies; Bullheads, Catfish, Bowfin, Pumpkinseed and Carp.
1970-1979 -decline of Smallmouth Bass
-increase of Largemouth Bass, Yellow Perch, White Sucker, Rock Bass,Cra ppies, Alewife, Bullheads, Catfish, Bowfin, Pumpkinseed, Gizzard Shad, Freshwater Drum and Northern Pike.
Smallmouth Bass suffered from continues sports fishing pressure and perhaps an increase in water temperature. Warmer water, nutrient enrichment and increase of aquatic vegetation was most likel responsible for the increase in the large number of warm water species.

Long Point Inner and Outer Bay Sport Fishery

The Long Point Bay area has long been renowned for providing the best angling opportunities for Smallmouth Bass and Yellow Perch in all of Lake Erie. Indeed, Long Point Bay ranks first by a considerable margin in terms of yield, compared to other surveyed bass fisheries in the province of Ontario. (MacGregor, 1988) The waters off the tip of Long Point provide angling opportunities for Coho and Chinook Salmon, Walleye and Rainbow Trout (See Appendix 1 for Scientific Names). Commercial fishing for Smallmouth Bass has been prohibited on both sides of Lake Erie since the turn of the century. Unfortunately, there has been little statistically reliable documentation on Smallmouth Bass population trends, and in general on the recreational fishery. Figure 11 gives some data from 1978 to 1991.

Lake Erie Fisheries Assessment Unit Studies

In 1975 the OMNR Lake Erie Fisheries Assessment Unit (LEFAU) developed and implemented a standardized creel census design in western Lake Erie. In 1978 LEFAU, in conjunction with the Simcoe District OMNR, began a standardized creel census in Long Point Bay (Sztramko and Paine, 1984). This standardized creel census accounted for which species of fish the angler was actively seeking. Figure 11 illustrates the catch success for species, relative to each other, actively sought by anglers in Long Point Bay. Catch success was determined by dividing the observed number of fish caught by the observed effort in rod-hours for anglers seeking the indicated species.

Figure 6.11 Long Point Bay Sport Fishery Catch Success, 1978-1991.

Nanticoke Fish Study

The Nanticoke Fish Study was initiated in response to the development of the Stelco Steel integrated steel mill, the Ontario Hydro 4000 MW coal-fired Nanticoke Thermal Generating Station and the Texaco (now Esso) 105,000 barrel-per-day oil refinery on the north shore of Lake Erie, at Nanticoke, Ontario.

Of particular interest to this report are the results of the Nanticoke Fish Study's research on fish migration and movement. Over eight thousand fish were tagged and released at trapnet locations in Nanticoke from 1981 to 1983. Close to 4000 Yellow Perch were tagged and released at other locations in Long Point Bay in 1981 and 1982. About 7.5% of these fish were later recaptured in OMNR trap nets, commercial gill nets and by sports fishermen. The study revealed interesting information on fish movement in the Long Point Bay area.

During the spawning period Rock Bass populations along the northeast shore of Lake Erie, migrated 35-40 km to spawning grounds in the shallow and protected waters of Inner Bay, and then returned to their original grounds (Figure 12).

Figure 6.12 Rock Bass Recaptured During the Spawning Season after Capture, Tagging and Release at Nanticoke before the Spawning Season. [MacGregor, R.B. and L.D. Witzel] (1987)

Smallmouth Bass populations in the Nanticoke area also migrated to Inner Bay for spawning and then returned to Nanticoke (Figure. 13).

Figure 13. Smallmouth Bass Recaptured During the Spawning season after Capture, Tagging and Release in the Nanticoke Area. [MacGregor, R.B. and L.D. Witzel] (1987)

Yellow Perch moved into Inner Bay in January and February, up to three months prior to their spawning season (Figure 14).

Figure 6.14 Yellow Perch Recaptured Before The Spawning Season One or More Years after Capture, Tagging and Release in the Nanticoke Area. [MacGregor, R.B. and L.D. Witzel] (1987)

Yellow Perch captured in Inner Bay during spawning and released up to 71 km to the east, returned to or near their spawning sites within a few days of their release (Figure 15).

Figure 6.15 Yellow Perch Recaptured Before The Spawning Season One or More Years after Capture, Tagging and Release in the Nanticoke Area. MacGregor, R.B. and L.D. Witzel (1987)

Yellow Perch tagged on spawning beds in the Long Point-Inner Bay area, dispersed after the spawning season into outer Long Point Bay and the Central Basin of Lake Erie (Figure 16) (MacGregor and Witzel, 1987).

Figure 6.16 Yellow Perch Recaptured Following Spawning Season, after Capture and Release in the Inner Bay area during Spawning Season. [MacGregor, R.B. and L.D. Witzel] (1987)

Summary and Additional Research Needs

Two cultural stresses; commercial fishing effort and environmental modification, and one natural stress; the invasion and introduction of exotic species, have been primarily responsible for the change in fish species over the last century. In 1990 three exotic species, Rainbow Smelt, (36.5%) White Perch (14.0%) and Carp (2.7%) accounted for over one half (53.2%) of the Lake Erie commercial harvest. (Great Lakes Fishery Commission, unpublished data) At present, Rainbow Smelt and Yellow Perch, which account for 36.5% and 19.1% of the Lake Erie commercial harvest respectively, are under stress (OMNR, 1993a and OMNR, 1993b), in part due to commercial exploitation.

In summary, it is evident that Long Point and Inner Bay are of enormous importance to the fishery of Lake Erie, and indeed to the fisheries of the Great Lakes. The bay and its marshes provide suitable spawning and nursery habitat for local fish populations, as well as fish communities in Lake Erie's eastern and central basins. (MacGregor and Witzel, 1987) It is very difficult to predict the future of the Lake Erie fishery. It is likely we never will completely understand the interactions that drive the present fishery. Recognizing the aforementioned management limitations, and the inherent inability to control productivity, perhaps the time has arrived to pursue seriously a management approach to the fisheries of Lake Erie that is more closely linked to ecosystem principles and sustainable use. The management approach should be more finely tuned to the needs and desires of the approximately 13 million people living in the surrounding watershed.

Work Cited

Cox, E.T. 1992. An Indexed Chronology of Some Events In The Development and Administration of Commercial Fishing on Lake Erie Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Lake Erie Fisheries Assessment Unit, Wheatley, Ontario.

Hamley, J.M. and MacLean, N.G. 1979. "Impacts of Industrial Development" Contact 11: 81-115.

Hatch, R.W., S.J. Nepszy, and Rawson, M.R. 1990. "Management of Percids in Lake Erie, North America" In (van Denson, W.T.L. Steinmetz, B. and Hughes, R.H. eds). Management of Freshwater Fisheries Proceedings of a symposium organized by the European Inland Fisheries Advisory Commission, Goteborg, Sweden, 31 May-3 June 1988. Pudoc. Wageningen: 624-636.

MacGregor, R.B. 1988. "Estimated Incidental Catches of Smallmouth Bass in Commercial Gill Nets, Long Point Bay, Lake Erie, 1987" Lake Erie Fisheries Assessment Unit Report 1988-2, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Port Dover, Ontario.

MacGregor, R.B. and Witzel, L.D. 1987. "A Twelve Year Study of the Fish Community in the Region of Long Point Bay, Lake Erie: 1971-1983 Summary Report" Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Lake Erie Fisheries Assessment Unit, Wheatley, Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. 1993a. Lake Erie Status of Stocks 1993 Toronto, Ontario.

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (Southwestern Region). 1993b. Lake Erie Fisheries Report 1992 Toronto, Ontario.

Sztramko, L. and Paine, J.R. 1984. "Sport Fisheries in the Canadian Portion of Lake Erie and Connecting Water, 1948-80" Ontario Fisheries Technical Report 13. Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, Toronto, Ontario

Whillans, T.H. 1979. "Historic Transformations of Fish Communities in Three Great Lakes Bays" Journal of Great Lakes Research 5(2): 195-215.

Whillans, T.H. 1979. "Response of Fish Communities to Stress: a Historical Study of Inner Bay, Long Point" Contact: Journal of Urban and Environmental Affairs 11(1): 1-18.

Appendix 6

List of Scientific Names of Fish Reported in Text

Common Name Scientific name
Lake Sturgeon Acipenser fulcescens
Alewife Alosa pseudoharengus
Rock Bass Ambloplites grunniens
Bowfin Amia calva
Sheepshead Aplodinotus grunniens
White Sucker Catostomus commersoni
Lake Herring Coregonus artedii
Lake Whitefish Coregonus clupeaformis
Carp Cyprinus carpio
Gizzard Shad Dorosoma Cepedianum
Northern Pike Esox lucius
Muskellunge Esox masquinongy
Brown Bullheaad Ictalurus nebulosus
Channel Catfish Icalurus punctatus
Punpkinseed Lepomis gibbosus
Bluegill Leopomis macrochirus
Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieui
Largemouth Bass Micropteerus salmoides
White Perch Morone americana
White Bass Morone chrysops
Coho Salmon Oncorhynchus kisutch
Rainbow Trout Oncorhynchus mykiss
Chinnok Salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha
Rainbow Smelt Osmerus mordax
Yellow Perch Perca flavescens
Sea Lamprey Petromyzon marinus
Black Crappie Pomoxis nigromaculatus
Sauger Stizostedion canadense
Blue Pike Stizostedion ritreum glaucum
Walleye Stizostedion vitreum