fishing industry in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Fishing Industry in Wisconsin

fishing industry in Wisconsin | Wisconsin Historical Society
Dictionary of Wisconsin History.


The fishing industry was among the first commercial enterprises to achieve some level of success in Wisconsin. The rich spawning areas of Lake Michigan, Green Bay, and Lake Superior, along with inland riverways, provided large numbers of skilled fisherman with a livelihood during the 19th and 20th centuries. The primary regions that experienced the strongest commercial fishing development were the Door Peninsula, the Two Rivers-Manitowoc area, and the Bayfield-Apostle Island areas. The early years of fishing were dominated by independent fisherman. Fur trading companies established networks of local fisherman, both white and Indian, to provide raw fish for packing and marketing in the East.

Originally intended as a supplement to the fur trade, fishing quickly became a major industry. The American Fur Company was one of the first commercial firms and its headquarters at La Pointe had become a fishing and warehousing center for the entire Lake Superior and Upper Mississippi region by the 1830s. Fishing remained a significant part of the local economy in Bayfield although little expanision occured until the late 1880s with the arrival of the railroad. The industry was boosted again in 1895 when the legislature appropriated funds for the first fish hatchery program. By 1900, Booth Fisheries of Bayfield (with branches in Green Bay and La Crosse) had become the dominant packing concern in the region. The entire Lake Superior fishing region experienced highly productive years from the end of WWI through the 1930s. By the late 1950s, the combination of over fishing and predatory species began to have a disastrous effect on the industry in Lake Superior, initiating a steady decline.

The promise of superior fishing banks had drawn the first settlers to the Door Peninsula in the 1830s. Fishing camps supplied nearby markets in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Green Bay, and along the southern shore of Lake Michigan, allowing the region to remain a significant regional fishing center throughout the 19th century. The area remained rich in commercial and sport fishing well into the 20th century because of the lack of growth in heavy industry on the Peninsula. Production levels declined from 1880 to 1900 due to over fishing and depressed markets, but rebounded in the first decades of the 20th century. Unfortunately, the devastation of the whitefish and trout populations by lamprey and other environmental factors destroyed much of the reorganized industry by mid-century.

Scientific breeding, restocking programs, and environmental restraints on the harvesting of fish have allowed the industry to maintain a modest commercial position. State-sponsored fish hatcheries and the Federal Fish Control Lab in La Crosse played an important role in the sustained development of the fishing industry in the 20th century.

[Source: Wisconsin's Cultural Resources Study Unit, Wisconsin Historical Society]

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