Number of shad licenses sold

1920 1940 1960 1980 2000

Figure 14.1. Numbers of shad licenses sold to Hudson River fishermen, 1924-96. Data from 192451 are from Talbot (1954) and from 1976-96, Hattala and Kahnle (1997). License records from intervening years were lost.

1920 1940 1960 1980 2000

Figure 14.1. Numbers of shad licenses sold to Hudson River fishermen, 1924-96. Data from 192451 are from Talbot (1954) and from 1976-96, Hattala and Kahnle (1997). License records from intervening years were lost.

overharvesting of sturgeon was inevitable, given the level of effort. Overharvesting of shad peaked in the 1890s, with catches declining precipitously thereafter (Stevenson, 1899). Writing in 1916, Dr. C. M. Blackford declared,

... there is probably no fish on earth that surpasses the shad in all the qualities that go to make up an ideal food fish... [but it] is the one whose preservation has become a national problem.

In the late 1800s, the U.S. Fish and Fisheries Commission took the radical step of artificial propagation, which was the state-of-the-art in U.S. fisheries management at the time. Indeed, in June 1871, Seth Green, then one of the top fish culturists in the country, steam-trained across the country with delicate shad fry held in milk cans, discharging them into the upper Sacramento River (recounted in Boyle, 1979). Shad became established on the Pacific coast, invading the Columbia River within 30 years (Ebbesmeyer and Hinrichsen, 1997) and constituting an important, if exotic, component of the ichthyofauna there today.

Concurrent with turn-of-the-century overharvesting problems, a growing and rapidly industrializing New York City created serious stress on New York Harbor, with dumping of soot and garbage and discharges of wastes an ever-increasing nuisance. The oyster fisheries were essentially gone by the 1920s (Franz, 1982), and the fouled water imparted an unpleasant flavor to most of the fishes

(NYSCD, 1964). Nevertheless, fisheries continued to constitute a livelihood, at least in part, for many upriver communities throughout much of the twentieth century (Fig. 14.1). With the enactment of the National Environmental Policy Act in 1970 and amended Clean Water Act in 1972, conventional pollution declined and in many aspects, the river recovered (Limburg, Moran, and McDowell, 1986). However, as a result of widespread PCB contamination, several of the important commercial fisheries are closed, and today commercial effort is at an all-time low (see Shapley, 2001 for a journalistic account or Hattala and Kahnle, 1997).


The Hudson River Estuary figures prominently in the history of American angling. Due in part to the high quality of fishing in its waters and to the many books and articles written about it, Zeisel (1990) considered New York City to have become the capital of American angling by 1850. Among the important angling writers were Frank Forester and Genio Scott. In his classic work, Fishing in American Waters, (Scott, 1875) wrote about angling in the Hudson River estuary in the vicinity of New York City. Several sections were devoted to striped bass angling, including trolling for them from skiffs in the "seething and hissing" waters of Hell Gate in the East River, a riptide where currents reached ten knots. Scott also described fishing for striped bass from rowboats near the hedges (fish weirs made from brush) in the Kill Van Kull and from bridges in the Harlem River. The Harlem River, although dammed for tidal mill power for the first half of the nineteenth century, was a major resource which offered excellent angling for striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, porgy, and flounder (Zeisel, 1995).

These species, and others, were fished all over New York Harbor from shore and from vessels. Zeisel (1995) quoted Harper's Weekly of August 4, 1877, which stated that "On almost any day of the year except when the ice makes fishing impossible, hundreds of men and boys may be seen on the river front engaged in angling." Zeisel (1990, 1995) also reported that in the mid-1800s, skiffs could be rented from various liveries and that during summer, hundreds of boats filled with anglers could be seen on the harbor's best spots.

Angling in New York Harbor during Scott's time included species almost never seen today. Scott provided instructions on exactly where and how to catch sheepshead near Jamaica Bay, an area where they were so abundant that farmers would fish them with hand-lines to supplement their income. Black drum, another twentieth century absentee, also were commonly landed during the previous century in Upper and New York Bays and the East and Harlem Rivers (Zeisel, 1995).

A surprising category of fish that were caught in Upper New York Bay and along the docks of lower Manhattan from 1760 to 1895 was sharks (Zeisel, 1990). Although their species identities remain unknown, large sharks were abundant in these inshore waters during that period, possibly drawn by large amounts of food refuse being disposed of in NewYork Harbor. Accounts exist (ca. 1815) of shark fishers catching as many as seven sharks at lengths of up to 14 feet at Manhattan's Catherine Market (Zeisel, 1990).

Fish along the shores of Manhattan began to taste contaminated from petroleum by the late 1800s, pushing anglers to more distant waters such as the "fishing banks" in the New York Bight (Zeisel, 1995). But angling farther upriver in the Hudson River developed more slowly. According to Zeisel (1995), fishing activity centered on wharves and docks at major landings such as the mouth of Rondout Creek in Kingston, and at Newburgh, Poughkeepsie, and Hudson. Both shad and sturgeon roe were commonly used baits in the Hudson's freshwater reaches. Important species caught (mainly with hand-lines) included striped bass, white perch, American eel, and catfish. Tributaries of the Hudson River were also fished, particularly in spring for spawning runs of suckers andyellowperch. Many of these tributaries also supported trout, but this angling declined as they were fished out, with attention shifting to the black basses.

The endemicity in the Hudson River of one gamefish, Atlantic salmon, has been debated since Robert Juet - a member of Henry Hudson's exploratory expedition up the river - reported "many Salmons and Mullets and Rays very great." This notion was fueledby their occasional capture by netin the river throughout the nineteenth century. However, a number of scientists have concluded that the Hudson did not support a salmon population and that such appearances were probably strays from neighboring systems such as the Connecticut River. Nonetheless, Atlantic salmon eggs from Penobscot River specimens were stocked in the Hudson River in the 1880s (Zeisel, 1995). These stockings were sufficient to result in hundreds of commercial catches in the lower river and fewer via angling upriver, chiefly at Mechanicville (following collapse of a dam at Troy). However, there is no evidence that natural reproduction occurred and this fishery dwindled after stocking was halted. Given that Juet's observation was made in September in Lower NewYork Bay and because of its superficial salmonid resemblances, it is likely that he mistook weakfish for salmon.

Fishing clubs became numerous along the Hudson River beginning in the late 1800s (Zeisel, 1995). They led the fight against the Hudson fishing license, which was in effect from the 1930s to 1946. Inasmuch as it was instituted during the Depression and was costly, many people ignored it as they angled for sustenance. Game wardens were overwhelmed and judges dismissed cases against destitute offenders, which together with the fact that the river was not stocked by the state with fish, eventually led to its repeal.

Angling on the Hudson River estuary continued without fanfare during the early to mid-1900s. But because of its severe sewage and industrial contamination, the estuary appears to have reached a nadir in angling activity over that period.

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