America’s rivers, streams, ponds, and lakes teem with fish and shellfish. Native Americans consumed large quantities of fish and figured out that fish heads placed in holes with corn produced a better corn.
European colonists were overjoyed to get vast numbers of salmon, salmon trout, herring, shad, sturgeon, rainbow and brook trout, bass, flounder, catfish, perch, pike, sunfish, chub, bass, sucker, and other fish in the rivers. Until the rivers were mostly fished out in the 19th century, freshwater fish remained an important source of food.
Freshwater fish were prepared in various ways, including grilled, stewed, barbequed, and fried, and were an ingredient in chowders and other dishes. Fish was canned early in the 19th century, and railroads made it possible for fish to be transported virtually everywhere in America.
Commercial and subsistence fishing were the most efficient methods. Hand lines, nets, spears, guns, as well as on occasion dynamite were employed to acquire as many fish as possible in the shortest period to generate the maximum amount of money with the least effort.
Commercial activity significantly reduced the species of fish available in particular areas. Sports fishing was a leisure activity with a very different mindset and required a set of gentlemanly practices designed to pit the fisherman’s skill against a cunning fish. Fishing clubs, including the Schuylkill Fishing Company of Philadelphia, were organised to provide noble men with an escape out of their everyday world.
By the early 19th century, angling clubs had emerged in many American cities. The purpose of these organisations was primarily social, with a little fishing on the side (although not always with a rod and reel). From these upper-class clubs evolved institutions that will establish the rules for angling using hooks, lines, flies, lures, and rods and reels. As the century progressed, American manufacturers began making and marketing proper fishing gear that had formerly been imported from England. By the end of the century, magazines including Forest and Stream and American Angler and much more than 100 books exalted the art of freshwater sports fishing.
Recipe: Baked Salmon, Trout, or Pickerel
Clean thoroughly, wipe carefully, and lay in a dripping-pan with water enough to prevent scorching (a perforated tin sheet or rack fitting loosely in the pan or several muffin-rings may be used to keep the fish from the base of the pan, as well as the fish could be made to form a circle by tying head and tail together). Bake slowly, basting often with butter and water. When done, have ready a cup of sweet cream into which a few spoonfuls of hot water have been poured, stir in two tablespoons melted butter and also a little-chopped parsley, and heat in a vessel of boiling water; add the gravy from the dish and boil up once. Place the fish in a hot dish, and pour over the sauce.
Angling clubs, fishing magazines, and sport fishing books promoted particular methods of fishing as well as a code of proper conduct for anglers. Individual fish, especially people that have a character which could put up a fight, were identified as game fish. Anglers were encouraged to catch them, while other fish were classified as rough or coarse and not worth a genteel anglers time.
These methods and guidelines helped distinguish top- and middle-class anglers from the subsistence or working-class anglers reduced the sports fishing catch, and contributed to preventing the depletion of fish populations. In many states, laws were passed to regulate fishing. Shooting fish, dynamiting ponds, and using nets for sports fishing became illegal. Licenses were required, and other restrictions were developed.
These rules and regulations applied to freshwater fishing in inland lakes and streams and not to ocean fishing, which remained a commercial activity. In 1865 Massachusetts became the first state to set a commission on fish, and many other countries followed. It wasn’t until 1871 that the federal government began to regulate freshwater fishing, but at the time no one considered saltwater fishing a sport.
Despite these efforts, freshwater fish began to disappear. An examination of restaurant menus beginning in the 1850s demonstrates that popular wild fish disappeared from menus as the fish were depleted, only to be replaced by other species that were temporarily more abundant. This depletion of fish caused alarm, and states began to control commercial fishing.
By the late 19th century, salmon disappeared from New England rivers and streams, while shad and sturgeon mostly went along Atlantic coast rivers. Trout, sturgeon, and whitefish were significantly diminished in the Great Lakes. Crawfish almost went from Missouri waters, and in 1910 the state forbade angling about them in many places in the state. By 1913, the available fish declined considerably in New York fish markets that had teemed with freshwater fish in the 19th century.
Two solutions began to emerge. The first was to license anglers and use the funds to create hatcheries and then stock rivers and lakes. The other solution was aquaculture farming freshwater fish. Fish were farmed during the 19th century, and these operations were engaged mainly in raising bait fish for local fishermen.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) promoted fish farming as an adjunct to farming, but aquaculture remained a small business activity throughout the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century. During the 1950s, American University researchers began to explore fish farming, and this led to the creation of USDA-funded experimental stations on aquaculture in Arkansas and Alabama. This early research focused on catfish and tilapia.
The first large-scale fish farming in the United States involved catfish. From Arkansas and Alabama, catfish aquaculture expanded into Mississippi, Louisiana, Texas, and Missouri. As a consequence of these fish farms, the consumption of farmed catfish in America has increased by 90 percent during the past 40 years. Today, Mississippi is the largest producer of farmed catfish. Tilapia, a species almost unknown 40 years ago, is now the sixth most consumed seafood in the United States. Because tilapia needs warm water, it’s also farmed in the South, particularly in Florida and Texas