Decline of the Northeast’s Historical Inland Fisheries

Since the last ice age native trout and salmon had lived for centuries without much disturbance other than from limited natural predators. Eventually Native Americans utilized salmon as a major food source, but their overall impact was minute. With the arrival of European settlers the effects on native fishes became immeasurable. I argue that former human caused destruction of watersheds, overfishing, and few state or federal regulations, along with recent issues, both natural and unnatural, have contributed to the significant decline of the Northeast’s native salmonid populations. This research focuses primarily on the Eastern brook trout and Atlantic salmon.

The Northeast is an intricate network of mountains, forests, rivers, streams, ponds, lakes, and ocean. The landscape went undisturbed for thousands of years, and so did the organisms that inhabited it. The retreat of the last glacier left the waterways we have today. Cold, clean, and free flowing, these rivers, streams, and ponds began to harbor life.

The first significant creatures to come were small insects, then smaller fish, and eventually salmonids. Large populations of Atlantic salmon were thriving in the ocean and utilizing all suitable inland rivers north of the Hudson River in New York for spawning.1 At the same time native brook trout were well adapted to cold brooks, large rivers such as the Pemigewasset and Ammonousuc in New Hampshire, brackish coastal rivers, and even short-lived beaver ponds. Foraging on insects, crustaceans, other fish, shrimp and whatever else was available to these early salmonids was of highest importance in order to survive. Successful reproduction was of course crucial to a healthy population of both brook trout and Atlantic salmon. These natural cycles were disturbed soon after Europeans arrived and drastically changed the Northeastern landscape.

Brook trout, or Salvelinus fontinalis, are technically a char, which varies them from other “trout” such as brown trout (Salmo trutta) or rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss). The eastern brook trout historically grew much larger in size than present day specimens reach. The average size was approximately 10 – 20 inches and between 3 – 6 pounds. Although some native brook trout do reach these proportions still today in the more northern reaches of the Northeast, they average 3-15 inches, and perhaps reach a couple of pounds. They feed primarily on aquatic insects such as caddis, mayflies, and stoneflies. They also eat a variety of terrestrials and other fish including grass hoppers, spiders, moths, minnows, sculpins, and even mice and voles. In the Northeast they spawn in late October and early November depending on annual weather patterns.

The Atlantic salmon, or Salmo salar, is a close relative of the brown trout (Salmo trutta).  It is an anadromous fish meaning they are born in freshwater; grow for several years before migrating to the Atlantic Ocean, then return to spawn after years of maturing at sea. This cycle is what makes the Atlantic salmon so unique, yet so fragile. Natal streams where spawning once occurred include headwaters of the Penobscot river in Northern Maine, the Baker river in Rumney, New Hampshire, and the Connecticut river on the Canadian and New Hampshire border. Of these three rivers, only the Penobscot sees a very limited spawning run each fall. Once present in nearly every coastal river along the New England coast, the Atlantic salmon is only found in eleven rivers, all located in Northern Maine. 2 These rivers are the last remaining in the United States with a returning population of wild native Atlantic salmon. The reason for this limitation is a result of centuries of change and destruction to the watersheds these salmonids inhabit.

Amoskeag falls in Manchester was once a grand place in the state of New Hampshire to fish for Atlantic salmon. Native Americans once used the falls as their primary fishing location. Hundreds of years of Native American harvesting of Atlantic salmon to utilize, as a food source never had a significant impact on the population. Native Americans typically would spear the large salmon as they made their way up the falls. This made them an easy target, along with the now rare Atlantic sturgeon. Along with these two fish, striped bass also were present at the falls. According to Jack Noon, author of “New Hampshire’s Native Fish”, “Both of these species (Atlantic sturgeon and Striped bass) were reported in the eighteenth century as far up as Amoskeag falls in Manchester”. 7 The fact that Native American tribes such as the Penobscot, Abenaki, or Penacook were limited to primarily spearing salmon and these other species, they could never take the numbers Europeans were capable of using large nets.

Around 1620 Europeans arrived in New England and found salmon to be a bountiful food source that was ideal for them as a protein rich staple to their diet. As Europeans moved into the Manchester area, they soon found great ease in taking large numbers of Atlantic salmon each year as they reached the falls on their spawning run. During the mid 1700’s, places like Bellows Falls on the Connecticut River and Bangor, Maine along the Penobscot became salmon fishing capitals. Huge numbers of salmon were intercepted with large nets that spanned the brawling rivers.   Before the Pawtucket, Essex, and Amoskeag dams were erected, along with hundreds more in surrounding states, Atlantic salmon had very few natural predators. Natives Americans, eagles, large piscivoruous fish at sea, or otter were the only organisms capable of capturing, killing, and consuming Atlantic salmon before the arrival of Europeans. The population was in no decline before their arrival. Evidence is clear that Europeans were directly responsible for eliminating the ideal and necessary spawning habitat that native salmon needed in order to maintain a healthy population. The loss of access to spawning grounds was mainly attributed to the erection of dams and the pollution that resulted from the processes before, during, and after their construction. Spawning salmon are currently limited to several undammed river in Canada. Shown in figure 1 is the past migration pattern of Atlantic salmon before the building of dams:

The first mill city to be erected on the banks of a New England river was Lowell, Massachusetts in 1825. 3  The purpose of the city was to build mills that would produce textile products for the growing New England population. Once a small farm town, it was quickly developed and changed from its former agricultural past. The Merrimack River was dammed in 1847 in order to produce energy to run the mills. The original dam was reconstructed in 1875. Construction of the dam is shown in Figure 2

Pawtucket Dam construction 1875  -

Pawtucket Dam construction 1875 –

This modified dam made passage impossible for Atlantic salmon trying to reach their natal headwaters. Without access to the upper reaches of the Merrimack River watershed, the spawning cycle was disrupted. According to an article written in the Telegraph newspaper on April 7th, 1977  “ Sea run Atlantic salmon were eliminated from the Merrimack River by 1859 with the construction of the Essex and Pawtucket dams, although remnant runs of shad continued”. 4

        After some experimentation with breeding Atlantic salmon at Livermore Falls on the Pemigewasset River in 1891, the population actually increased for several decades. Although a number of salmon passages were created and runs were existent, the population again crashed in 1898.5

         The initial attempt to bring back Atlantic salmon to the Merrimack River watershed had failed. Although salmon had migrated up the same waters just fifty years previous, the disruption from dams, pollution, and commercial fishing were prohibiting the salmon population from regenerating. The Telegraph newspaper article, which contains some interesting information on the various Merrimack Atlantic salmon projects, was written in 1977 highlighting a discussion that was to be held in order to attempt to restore Atlantic salmon once again to the watershed. This attempt would be known as the Merrimack watershed Atlantic Salmon Restoration Project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife service conducted studies during the late nineteen seventies on the headwater sections of the Pemigewasset, Baker, and Mad Rivers in order to obtain information that would help understand the spawning habits of Atlantic salmon.6 This later research helped biologists eventually begin to understand the connection and significance Atlantic salmon have to their natal streams.

While mills were operating all over the Eastern coastline and inland region causing harm to the Atlantic salmon population, problems were beginning to appear elsewhere. During the same time dams were being built other activities such as logging and the pulp industry begun. These industries also created a detrimental impact on the salmon’s environment, and were virtually unregulated and unstoppable for over a century.

Today there are hundreds, if not thousands, of environmental regulations regarding logging, pulping, forest management, road systems, watershed use, and various other forestry practices. These have been set in place in order to protect the natural environment that supports an abundance of wildlife. Places like the White Mountain National Forest have been set aside in order to protect wildlife, provide recreational use, and to permit logging. Sustainable timber harvest and prescribed burns are a common occurrence in W.M.N.F today. Without these practices the forests would begin to lose their ecological health, therefore wildlife would suffer.  Although they may seem unregulated and detrimental to the forest and wildlife habitats, they are only a temporary and beneficial change to the ecosystem.  A look back at former logging in the Northeast shows a vastly different approach to the same activities that ultimately changed the landscape forever.

Native Eastern brook trout are known to be a bioindicator, which suggests healthy water quality within a watershed that they inhabit. Along with brook trout is an abundance of other species of aquatic insects in which the trout depend on to survive. An astonishing number of mayflies, caddis flies, stoneflies, midges, and terrestrial insects coexist within brook trout streams, rivers, ponds, and lakes. Just as important as water is to these insects is the environment, most specifically the vegetation, which surrounds the water body they inhabit. When extensive, unregulated logging occurs, as did in much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries along most rivers, important riparian habitat is destroyed. This is what occurred on the banks of almost every river and stream within the Northeast during the height of the early logging industry.

With such drastic and negative change to the forests, watersheds were affected equally. These environments supported far less wildlife than they had prior to over logging. The rivers were eventually turned into a way to move timber from one place to another. Huge log drives began to appear on the Connecticut, Penobscot, Androscoggin, and Magalloway rivers. This act resulted in near total destruction to the health of the watersheds. Shown in figure 3 is Azicoohos Lake (Magalloway River) during a log drive.

Item #: 24237, June 1959 Brown Company Collection Parmachenee camp #7

Item #: 24237, June 1959 Brown Company Collection Parmachenee camp #7

Although brook trout were fished for and consumed heavily from the time Europeans arrived until present time, they never were taken for commercial purpose as Atlantic salmon had been and still are today. The brook trout is a small fish in comparison to the Atlantic salmon, which can reach fifty pounds or more. Their small size translates to less available meat to consume. Salmon were more possible to filet, which was a basic method for butchering fish that were destined to be sold or smoked. The brook trout found its place on the dinner table, or rather the picnic table, when anglers were camping after a long day on the water. Perfect for a smaller feast, brook trout were fished out heavily in order to fulfill the ideal camp meal for early outdoorsmen.

Many photographs exist from the eighteen hundreds showing men with twenty or more brook trout harvested from just a single water body. These photos were often merely a day’s catch and can signify how overfishing pressured the brook trout population. Large brook trout were common in almost all lakes, rivers, and streams up until the end of the nineteenth century. The decline was noticed in places such as Moosehead Lake region in Maine and the Connecticut and Ammonousuc Rivers in New Hampshire. Fishermen began to catch smaller, and less fish than they used to. The effects of such a drastically changed landscape were becoming evident to the people who were familiar with its former condition. In “A Landscape History Of New England” edited by Blake Harrison and Richard W. Judd, there are several quotes from native Maliseet Henry Red Eagle that reflect the condition of the local Maine inland fisheries in the Moosehead Lake region during the mid twentieth century. The authors wrote, “Overzealous fishermen and hunters placed tremendous pressure on local fish and game populations, some people worried.” “Most Fisherman today,” Red Eagle wrote, “would rather sit in the canoe and find a spot easier of access,” yet these same fishermen “yelp like a loon because these spots are fished out.” 8

The New Hampshire Fish and Game website offers a brief history of the Fish and Game department and how it started. Sgt. David Walsh and Sgt. David Eskeland, both conservation officers wrote the history, which can be found on the New Hampshire Fish and Game website. The following quote written in the article describes the loose protection fish and other wildlife had in early times. “ Little to no restriction were imposed to protect birds, furbearers, or fish for a long time.” 9  Non-existent laws and regulations led to overfishing and overhunting within a very short amount of time. The article continued to state the following, “Mostly, any wildlife laws written had no provisions for enforcement, and without special authorization, this duty fell on local authority.”10 In 1866 the fisheries commission had been established in order to bring anadromous fishes back to inland rivers, but at the same time many non-native fish such as black bass, landlocked salmon, brown trout, and rainbow trout were introduced to New Hampshire waters. Years of this non-native introduction ultimately devastated the native brook trout population, which was not adapted to such species dwelling in their environment. These non-native species thrived and eventually took the place of native Eastern brook trout in hundreds of waters across the Northeast.

The upper and lower Baker ponds in Orford, New Hampshire are an example of once legendary native trout ponds, turned warm water fisheries due to introduction of invasive non-native species. A boys summer camp is located on the banks of the mentioned ponds, a probable cause for the introduction of invasives. Once trout numbers began to diminish, new species were brought in for anglers to pursue. This is the story of many Northeastern trout waters that once existed.

In 1880 the “Commission of Fisheries and Game” was established to protect the remaining fish that were left in the state. 11 The New Hampshire Fish and Game history article written by two conservation officers mentions “ In the commissions first report, only two paragraphs are devoted to game, as fish had been, and continue to be, it’s primary concern.” 11 By the beginning of the twentieth century it was evident that the Northeastern landscape, and its fisheries had undoubtedly changed drastically since the arrival of the first Europeans. Conservation organizations had been established long ago, and continue to appear in present times. Trout unlimited, the Atlantic Salmon Federation, and Slow Food are just a few examples of such organizations that are attempting to maintain and restore our native inland fisheries. Modern issues such as politics, aquaculture, and commercial fisheries continue to threaten both Atlantic salmon and Eastern brook trout populations. The negative effects that humans have inflicted on the natural cycles these salmonids possess may be irreversible, but the small and fragile populations that still exist need to be protected and studied. Information is still needed in order to fully understand the complex lives that these native inland and anadromous Salmonids live. From dam removals, to stricter laws regarding commercial and non commercial fisheries, steps must be taken in order to keep these organisms a part of the Northeastern landscape as they had been before the arrival of Europeans.

By Jonathan Zukowski


1.David Jenkins. 2003. “Atlantic salmon, endangered species, and the failure of environmental policies”. Comparative Studies in Society and History: an International Quarterly.

2. Monahan, Phillip. “Atlantic Salmon – The Title “Fish of Kings” Describes the Species’ Regal Beauty, as Well as the Exclusivity of Some Salmon Waters.” American Angler, March 2013, 42-43. Accessed December 13, 2013.

3. Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary Carolyn Beaudry. 1996. Living on the Boott historical archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press.

4. “At Lowell Workshop Saturday Merrimack River Salmon Project To Be Discussed.” The Telegraph (Nashua), April 7, 1977.

5.Ibid 15

6.Ibid 15

7. Noon, Jack. “New Hampshire’s Native Fish.” Wildlife Journal, August 2002, 4-7.

8. Harrison, Blake A., and Richard William Judd. 2011. A landscape history of New England. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

9. Walsh, Sgt. David, and Sgt. David Eskeland. “History of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division.” New Hampshire Fish and Game. Accessed December 10, 2013.




Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. Report. Accessed December 12, 2013.

Harrison, Blake A., and Richard William Judd. 2011. A landscape history of New England. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Item # 24237. January 30, 2009. Brown Company, Plymouth State, Plymouth.

Jenkins, David. 2003. “Atlantic salmon, endangered species, and the failure of environmental policies”. Comparative Studies in Society and History: an International Quarterly.

Monahan, Phillip. “Atlantic Salmon – The Title “Fish of Kings” Describes the Species’ Regal Beauty, as Well as the Exclusivity of Some Salmon Waters.” American Angler, March 2013, 42-43. Accessed December 13, 2013.

Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary Carolyn Beaudry. 1996. Living on the Boott historical archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts. Amherst, Mass: University of Massachusetts Press.

Noon, Jack. “New Hampshire’s Native Fish.” Wildlife Journal, August 2002, 4-7.

Pawtucket Dam| National Treasures. 2013. Accessed December 10, 2013.

Walsh, Sgt. David, and Sgt. David Eskeland. “History of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Law Enforcement Division.” New Hampshire Fish and Game. Accessed December 10, 2013.

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