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Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783-1933

Author(s):Bogue, Margaret Beattie
Reviewer(s):Laurent, Jerome K.

Published by EH.NET (July 2001)

Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History,

1783-1933. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000. xix + 444 pp.

$27.95 (paper), ISBN 0-299-16764-X; $65.00 (cloth), ISBN: 0-299-16760-7.

Reviewed for EH.NET by Jerome K. Laurent, Department of Economics, University

of Wisconsin-Whitewater.

Margaret Beattie Bogue (professor emerita of history and liberal studies at

the University of Wisconsin-Madison) has authored or coauthored several books

and articles on Great Lakes history, including the environmental history of

the region. This work is a much greater effort and more comprehensive in its

coverage than her earlier research. The volume consists of twenty chapters

divided into four major sections as follows: the development of the commercial

fishing industry before 1893; changes in Great Lakes waters as a result of a

developing economy; the role of public policy during the pre-1896 years; and

the resulting problems encountered in the Great Lakes fisheries during the

1896-1933 period. In her words, “this study considers the complex interaction

between physical alterations in the Great Lakes basin and the fish resource as

humans adapted the natural wealth of the lakes to serve their needs” (p. xii).

Important groups include the commercial fishing industry (the fishers and the

dealers), policy makers attempting to regulate and conserve the fish

population, and marine scientists conducting studies in order to provide

information to the industry and policy makers alike.

Several of the seven chapters in Part I stand out. Chapter 3 on “Patterns of

Growth through 1872″ is especially significant because of the extensive

coverage given to the Milner Report, prepared by James Milner, an American

biologist who provided “the earliest official portrait of Great Lakes

commercial fishing” (p. 35). As Bogue emphasizes, the report established “a

benchmark from which to measure changes during the next twenty years.” Other

government reports by various individuals followed throughout the pre-1933

period. For those interested in economic history, Chapters 4 and 5 are worthy.

The former provides data on fish production, capital investment and the size

of the labor force engaged in the industry. Technological developments and

innovations are also discussed. The latter chapter provides initial coverage

of the rise of the A. Booth and Company and its attempts at market domination

of the wholesale fishing business. Unfortunately, there is little economic

data presented on the economic organization of the industry. Thus, it is

difficult to ascertain the extent of control it had over the industry.

In Part II both Chapters 8 and 9 provide an important framework of the

economic development of the region during the nineteenth century. Agriculture,

lumbering, mining and the fish habitat are considered in Chapter 8. The latter

chapter covers the growth of commerce and developments in transportation, and

the growth of communities along the lakes, especially urban centers. These

developments brought about pollution which, of course, began to adversely

affect harvests of the favored fish species and to harm the commercial fishing

industry, as well.

Part III deals with the important subjects of regulation, regulators and those

to be regulated. There were significant differences in the laws of Canada and

the United States and in the governmental bodies involved in the regulation of

Great Lakes fishing. Not surprisingly, there was an antiregulatory stance on

the part of the commercial fishing industry as well as a laissez-faire

attitude on the part of most Americans during the period. In Chapters 12 and

13 the author details the changes which occurred gradually over time. The U.S.

Commission of Fish and Fisheries, headed by Spencer F. Baird, played a major

role in the direction of fishery policies. By 1892, the Commission had

“accepted as key elements in management policy what had been the Canadian

formula since the 1860’s: regulation, licensing and enforcement, on the one

hand, and propagation and stocking, on the other” (p. 203). Professor Bogue

suggests that the best solution should have been international cooperation

between the two nations. Moreover, in her view, “the Canadian fishery policy

for the Great Lakes operated at a distinct advantage over the American Thus,

one government took responsibility for Great Lakes waters instead of eight

states and one federal commission” (pp. 204-205). Despite attempts at reforms,

“cooperative management of the fish population and the waters of the Great

Lakes and Canada, remained a very significant, difficult, and elusive goal”

(p. 237). As described in Chapter 15, the establishment in 1892 of a Joint

Commission to study the situation and to make recommendations was undertaken,

but its findings were advisory only. According to Bogue, the political power

of the commercial fishing interests was too strong: the industry “argued that

regulation would ruin profits, jobs and families” (p. 249).

Part IV details the problems of Great Lakes fishing which were many during the

1896-1933 years: overfishing, pollution, and ineffective government policies.

The 1908 failure to secure joint regulation of the Great Lakes by Canada and

United States, as pro-business attitudes on the part of governments, and a

lessening of efforts toward conservation brought the end of an era. The

desired species of fish were fewer and fewer as time went on and the invasion

of the lakes by the sea lamprey ended the good times. Thus, the commercial

fishing industry went into gradual decline despite intensive fishing efforts,

improved fishing technology and less regulation and enforcement by

governments. Even the A. Booth and Company declined. Chapters 17 and 18 detail

what went wrong with public policy initiatives. According to Bogue, “in the

Great Lakes states, antipollution laws that aimed to conserve marine life went

largely unenforced; in Canada, enforcement was sporadic.” (p. 290). The

result was that the marine habitat was in decline and thereby adversely

affected fish life despite the good work done by marine scientists. Both

scientists and sportsmen advocated better regulation of commercial fishing,

often to no avail. Moreover, government research moved in the direction of

economic studies which downplayed the purely scientific aspects of earlier

work. Overall, governments “had done a far better job of serving the

commercial interests than of saving the fish” (p. 320). The Great Depression

finished things for the commercial fisherman as they were confronted with

declining prices and resources and the invasion of the sea lamprey brought

about “the need for drastic revision in fishery policies, and greater

cooperation between Canada and the United States” (p. 330).

In summary, this book covers a very important subject. It is a well-written

piece of scholarship. Very little work on the environment, as it applies to

Great Lakes fishing during this long period, has been attempted. Professor

Bogue is able to weave together the scientific, economic, social and political

aspects of this development into a very complete volume. The notes at the end

of the text alone cover 53 pages. In a few instances Bogue offers so much

material that one could easily get lost in all the detail. It is difficult at

times to follow all the discussion of the work of various government agencies

and commissions. Moreover, as an economist I wished for more information on

the various firms that made up the commercial fishing industry — beyond that

on the largest firm. Such information would provide a better idea as to the

economic power of the leading firms, but I understand the challenges in

locating suitable data. In short, Bogue’s huge effort is much appreciated in

the researching and writing on this important and timely topic.

Jerome Laurent is the author of articles on Great Lakes transportation

history, which have appeared in Explorations in Economic History, the

Journal of Transport History and the International Journal of

Maritime History. He has recently completed a study on concentration and

control in Great Lakes transportation during the 1915-1940 period.

Subject(s):Agriculture, Natural Resources, and Extractive Industries
Geographic Area(s):North America
Time Period(s):20th Century: Pre WWII