Posts Tagged ‘alewives in the Great Lakes’

Identifying the Species of Fish described by John Lawson in 1710 (part 2)

August 31, 2014

Lawson admitted his list of freshwater fishes left out many species because he had explored the inland regions of the Carolinas during winter, a season when the natives didn’t often fish.  He starts his list with the sturgeon.  During his time the sturgeon was so common that a person could see “several hundreds of them in one day.”  Sadly, the sturgeon is almost extinct in North Carolina today, and there is no breeding population there.  The fish Lawson refers to as a pike is known today as the chain pickerel.  He caught 300 of them one day in his fish trap on the Neuse River.  I believe there is no river in North America today that would yield 300 chain pickerel in one trap within a 24 hour period.  This shows just how depleted America’s rivers are compared to yesteryear.  Some estimate there are 1000 times less fish in our rivers than existed during pre-colonial times.  

Chain pickerel. (Esox niger)  Lawson pulled 300 of these from his fish trap in the Neuse River on one occasion.

The trout Lawson mentions is undoubtedly the brook trout–the only native eastern species.  The fish he called the “English pearch” was actually the yellow perch and it was not the same species as found in England as Lawson mistakenly believed.  Lawson referred to the largemouth bass as a “brown pearch or Welchman” and again it was not the same species as found in England.  The fish he called a “flat or mottled pearch” is known today as the crappie.  Bream or freshwater sunfish were known by Lawson as “round-robins.”

Lawson claimed carp lived in Carolina but he was wrong.  Carp were not introduced to North America until 1831.  Instead, he may have had them confused with a native buffalo fish (Ictiobus bubalus) which does range into the western parts of the Carolinas in places he never vistited.  He does mention the “sucking fish” (suckers) and “cat-fish”, though he was unware that these 2 families of fish include many different species.

The fish Lawson called the “roach,” an English species, was most likely a type of shiner as was the fish he refered to as a “grindal.”  The fish he knew as the “gudgeon” was some type of minnow.  The fish he called a “loach” is the killifish.  He listed the dace, probably the long-nosed (Rhynicthys cataracterae).

Lawson knew alewives as “old-wives.”  The alewife is a type of herring that lives in the ocean and spawns in freshwater lakes and the deep slow bends of rivers.  The Indians used to dry and smoke alewives.  I remember seeing dead alewives littering a beach on Lake Erie, Ohio when I was a kid.  I had always assumed they died from pollution but that’s not the case.  Alewives are not native to the Great Lakes but instead colonized them by swimming through man-made canals.  Predatory fish populations had been devastated by overfishing, pollution, and lamprey colonization.  This allowed the alewife population to explode and during summer heatwaves, alewives would die by the thousands and wash up on the shore.  Incidentally, southerners not familiar with the Great Lakes probably don’t realize these bodies of water have big waves, just like the ocean.

Alewives. (Alosa pseudoharengus)

I’m not sure of the identity of Lawson’s “fountain fish.”  He wrote that they breed in the clear Running Springs and Fountains of Water, where the “clearness thereof makes them difficult to be taken.”  Perhaps, this is the fish known today as the creek chub (Semotilus atrumaculatus).

I can’t figure out what Lawson’s “white Fish” is.  He described them as being 2.5 feet or more long and were found in the “Freshes of the Rivers.”  I doubt he meant the white fish (Coregonus clupeaformis) found today in the Great Lakes.

The fish he called “Barbout” and “Miller’s Thumbs” is the freshwater cod or burbot (Lota lota).  I don’t think he ever saw this fish in person.  Within historical times this species was not known to have occurred south of the Kentucky River, though during the Ice Age it may have lived farther south.

A burbot or freshwater cod (Lota lota).  This species prefers deep cold lakes and during Lawson’s time probably didn’t range farther south than the Kentucky River.

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