Fishing Industry in Cleveland

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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FISHING INDUSTRY. Although Cleveland is situated on a lake that historically ranked among the world’s great fisheries, Clevelanders never looked to Lake Erie as a food source in any major sense. After 1796 the fishery was a marginal commerce, overshadowed by the port’s role as a transportation hub and industrial depot. Four major factors, geography, technology, consumer taste, and chronological coincidence, steered commercial fishermen to other ports on Lake Erie, particularly Sandusky, OH, and Erie, PA. By 1850 the Port of Cleveland looked to the Great Lakes for resources that proved of far greater economic importance than inexpensive protein.

The topography of the Lake Erie shore, high and rockbound from just east of the CUYAHOGA RIVER west to Cedar Point, presents as great a navigational hazard as any stretch of water on the Great Lakes. Only a few river mouths provide safe refuge from the sudden storms. On 19 Apr. 1808, Capt. Joseph Plumb of NEWBURGH, fitted out a sailing scow for a seining expedition. A sudden squall wrecked the boat at Dover Point (BAY VILLAGE), drowning all aboard except Capt. Plumb. Plumb was saved in a daring rescue, but the event exposed the difficulties of offshore fishing from Cleveland. Geography placed the richest fishing grounds at the far ends of the lake. The shallow, warm western basin has always been home to most of the lake’s fish. The deep eastern basin, on which Cleveland is sited, holds comparatively few. Because of its depth, it is not as easily fished as the west. Further, the species available off Cleveland were not as profitable to fishermen as the highly desirable fish of the west. Geography gave Cleveland’s competitors another advantage–both Sandusky and Erie grew beside the only natural harbors on Lake Erie. Sandusky and Presque Isle bays provided both refuge and terrain favorable for early fishing equipment.

The earliest extensive commercial fishing in Ohio began during the 1830s in Sandusky Bay. Its calm, shallow water and abundance of fish permitted simple, inexpensive onshore seining. A seine was a large bag-shaped net carried out on the water by rowboat, dropped overboard, and then dragged ashore. The rocky shore of Cleveland was not appropriate for this operation. When the northern port of the Ohio Canal was awarded to Cleveland it profited indirectly from the fishing industry along the Great Lakes, handling large quantities of fish caught elsewhere for transshipment to Ohio hinterland markets. During the 1850s, commercial fishermen moved out into the main fetch of the lake, significantly increasing their catch. Simultaneously, Cleveland received the first shipment of iron ore from the Marquette Range in 1852. This new traffic further congested the busy river, pushing out less profitable vessels. Still, despite the gathering industrial boom, a real commerce in fish did exist in the FLATS. The wholesale grocers who had transshipped imported fish on the canal had evolved into commission merchants who brokered a variety of commodities. These merchants purchased boatloads of fish from as far away as Lake Superior. They would then pack the fish on ice for local sale, or in salt for transport inland–the latter proved more profitable. W. L. Standart, cited as the most prominent commercial fisherman in Cleveland, operated 2 boats from the city, however, he was also a grocer, commission merchant, and saloon keeper. Clearly, Standart was not the professional lakeman seen in other ports.

Consumer taste also retarded the development of a fishing fleet in Cleveland. Both Native Americans and Europeans pursued the coldwater species of fish, especially whitefish and lake trout. This demand remained constant until those populations declined in the 1930s and 1940s. While found throughout the Great Lakes, neither species was particularly numerous in comparatively warm Lake Erie. With the fishing fleets of the upper lakes supplying the premium fish, and those of Sandusky and Erie providing other needs, Clevelanders chose to invest in fleets of freighters to serve the transportation and steel industries. By the 1860s, the economic role of the Port of Cleveland had been
established. The city would be a consumer, not a producer, of raw resources such as foodstuffs. However, some fishing boats sailed from the Cuyahoga, and processing plants continued to clean and preserve the catch. This marginal commerce would last for many years. In fact, the industry did enjoy some growth in the late 19th century. In 1883, for example, the demand of a booming urban population kept 4 major processing houses and several independent operators profitable. Two of the large firms specialized in ocean fish and shellfish, which had been sold in Cleveland since the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825. The other 2 handled imported lake fish. The independents generally sold their catch directly to grocers or through the municipal market. John W. Averill, Jr., was typical of the owner-operators of this period. His fleet consisted of 4 steam tugs and 1 sailboat, somewhat smaller than the comparable Sandusky firms. Even so, Averill especially advertised his whitefish and lake trout, indicating that he also imported fish.

In 1899 Chicago-based A. Booth & Co., then the largest fishing company on the lakes, opened a fishing station and processing plant in the Flats. Both (est. 1848) were the first to apply sophisticated management and financial procedures to a rough-and-tumble industry. The company soon had stations on all major fishing grounds and plants in most lake cities. True to form, Booth quickly grew to be the largest commercial fishing company in Cleveland. However, the long decline of the fishery had just begun, and the first evidence of it was the collapse of the lake sturgeon population. Relentless fishing and environmental changes caused by pollution and soil erosion decimated this once-valuable species. The period 1880-1915 regularly saw catches of 40 million lbs. of all varieties in Ohio waters. After that, species after species was subjected to the same pressures that had driven the sturgeon to near-extinction. The waters off Cleveland were particularly affected. Contrary to popular belief, the arrival of the sea lamprey did not cause the decline of the fish populations of Lake Erie; the lamprey does not breed in the warm streams feeding into the lake. By the 1920s, the average yearly catch had fallen to 16 million lbs. The decline of the cisco, or lake herring, accounted for most of this loss, which was extremely damaging to the industry as the cisco had accounted for the bulk of the sales. Some of the older firms went out of business as the industry as a whole grew smaller during the 1920s and 1930s. However, the companies that have survived were founded then. Fulton Fish, Euclid Fish, and State Fish all began
as fleet owners and processors. The industry was unionized during the 1930s, which drove up wages and costs; World War II drafted every available sailor into the armed forces, leaving only 1 boat operating out of Cleveland; and postwar consumer taste turned increasingly to beef. By 1950 only 7 boats sailed from the port. Cleveland was not the only city so affected, the industry was withering throughout the Great Lakes.

The nature of the lakes’ ecosystem was changing because of human action. Commercially valuable fish were vanishing, to be replaced by “rough” fish such as carp and smelt, which flourished despite the habitat degradation. Environmental factors, so pronounced in overutilized Lake Erie, culminated in a single great ecological catastrophe; the mayfly hatch of 1954 failed. The loss of this food source was disastrous for fish populations. The number of sauger, blue pike, walleye, and perch plummeted. Moreover, the mayflies served as an environmental indicator. Polluted and oxygen-depleted, Lake Erie increasingly could not sustain life, and this general collapse finished several companies. In 1955 Booth closed its Cleveland station; Star Fisheries, the predecessor to the State Fish Co., occupied their property in the Flats, and lean years followed. In the absence of pollution controls, the lake was increasingly fouled, and the boats departed Cleveland for more promising waters. In 1970, when Governor James Rhodes was forced to suspend fishing because of mercury contamination, only 1 boat, Fred Wittal’s Shark, was left on the river. By 1973, even it was gone. Nevertheless, the abandonment of Cleveland as a fishing harbor did not mean an end to its fish-processing industry. The surviving companies continued to import and distribute fish from the ocean and upper lakes. Prospects brightened in the 1970s as pollution control stemmed the habitat degradation. Fish stocks first stabilized, then grew. Although demand for fish increased, spurred by a cholesterol-conscious society, the fishing industry did not revive because the lucrative tourist industry lobbied for restrictions on the lakemen. Recreational fishermen, arguing that overfishing was responsible for the depletion of the stocks, met increasing success in Columbus, and strict netting regulations were applied. The Ohio Department of Natural Resources instituted a phased ban on gill nets in 1983, which became complete in 1985. Fishermen sold their equipment and quit the industry. By the late 1980s, the majority of lake fish consumed by Clevelanders were caught across the lake in Canada.

Michael McCormick

Western Reserve Historical Society


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