Commercial Fishing Industry
Commercial fishing in the Illinois River became viable by the 1870s with the invention of box cars refrigerated with natural ice. They could transport live and dressed fish long distances to markets in large cities. On the Illinois River, fish fed and spawned in the backwater lakes when flood waters provided passage from the main river channel. Commercial fishermen worked nets on both the river and lakes to catch carp, catfish, smallmouth buffalo, black bass, and shad.
The harvest of fish from the Illinois River in 1894 was about 6,000,000 pounds. It continued to rise to its 1908 peak of 24,000,000 pounds, when it suddenly began its decline. The decrease was attributable to the introduction of European or common carp, the increase in water from the Chicago Drainage Canal, sewage from that canal, and the leveeing of lands from 1900 onwards.
Seine Haul on Peoria Lake, 1927
Loaned by Donald Woodruff, Joliet, Illinois
Demand for Fish
Immigrants from central and eastern Europe moved into industrial cities and created a demand for fish. Religious beliefs and traditional customs led them to consume certain types of fish or to make fish a regular part of their diet. As the demand for fish grew, the number of fishermen and the tonnage of fish caught increased. By the 1890s, homemakers in cities along the Atlantic coast purchased Illinois river fish for Lenten or Kosher meals.
Carp were introduced into the river in 1890. They represented 500,000 pound of the 7,000,000 of fish caught in 1894. By 1908, they represented 15,000,000 of the 23,000,000 pounds of fish caught. During that span of fifteen years, the population of native buffalo fish harvested went down from 3,337,324 pounds to 1,900,000 pounds.
The Local Fishing Industry
Typically, fishermen rowed for hours in the early morning to reach their nets, traps, or lines, where they would collect their catch and deliver it to the local market. Almost every community along the Illinois River once supported a fish market. Traditionally, small, family-operated markets sold fresh fish to local buyers, but with increased demand from wider markets, the small floating markets became transfer points for shipping fish destined for tables in Boston, New York, and Chicago. Large-scale commercial fishing became possible after railroads linked the midwest with the eastern seaboard. Wives and daughters of the market owners assisted with cleaning and packing (called dressing), although in the larger markets, hired hands performed these chores.
Fishing temporarily improved when the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal was built in 1900, causing a raise in the water level from the diversion of water from Lake Michigan. A fisherman could take 80,000 pounds of fish per day. However, this water carried raw sewage from the residents of Chicago and soon began harming the fish and their habitat. Further damage was done to the river between 1910 and 1920, when levees were built to create more tillable land.
Depletion and Recovery "We have found some remarkable evidence of overfishing at certain points, especially Meredosia Bay. This area has been seined so steadily and generally that fish resorting there have been pretty well cleared out." - Fisheries scientist, 1915.
By 1931, when the law forced the Canal to divert less water, the Illinois became muddier and shallower, increasing stress on the remaining fish species. At the peak of commercial fishing on the Illinois River, one-half to two-thirds of Browning, Illinois families, for example, were involved in the fishing industry. Today none of them are. A few fish markets remain open, but most buy their fish from other states.
A decline continued until the 1960s, when some of the polluting industries were cleaned up or replaced, and cities along the river built their own sewage treatment plants over the decades. Since the 1960s, the river has experienced fewer fish kills, and there has been an increase in diversity of species of fish in the river. These are species that must rely on their sense of smell to feed off the bottom because the river is too muddy for fish that rely on their sight to feed. Today's commercial fisherman can expect to catch 40-50 pounds per day.