Photo courtesy Ellen George
“30,000 ciscoes were caught at Chaumont recently, at one haul. Every barrel in the vicinity was brought up and the storage was then insufficient. The balance of them were put in a large vat and sold out to farmers, the price going up from 30 cents a hundred to three shillings. The cisco trade at Chaumont is an institution.”
-New York Reformer (Watertown), November 23, 1865
This is Cisco Bay
We hail from old Chaumont
Habitat of the cisco;
Down where the lake winds blow
We’re sailormen, fishermen, happy and gay.
Ciscoe Chasers are we,
We sing at our work, and make our work play.
For cisco Chasers are we.
-“Song of the Cisco Fishermen,” quoted in an article by Rowena Peterson Babcock in Folklore Quarterly, Summer 1948
It would be hard to over-state the importance of the cisco in the history of Lyme. Chaumont Bay was once famous for these fish (sometimes called lake herring) -- Chaumont was referred to in local newspapers often simply as “The Cisco Village” and its residents as “the cisco chasers.” For a time the cisco industry was huge and lucrative.
It would have been unthinkable in the 19th century that Chaumont Bay would ever be without ciscoes, but by the mid-20th century the fish had disappeared. The species could not endure the over-fishing, the pollution from farm run-off and poor septic systems in waterfront cottages, the slow warming of the lake water, and the onslaught of invasive species. Though a declining population of ciscoes always remained in Lake Ontario, they had stopped spawning in Chaumont Bay and other bays on the American side. All cisco populations in New York’s inland lakes – including those in the Adirondacks and the Finger Lakes -- have disappeared. Lake Ontario pollution levels peaked in the 1960s and 1970s. Growing environmental concerns led to passage of The Federal Water Pollution Control Act Amendment of 1972, The Clean Water Act of 1977, and the Water Quality Act of 1987. As a result of these measures, the Lake has made a slow recovery. About fifteen years ago a Chaumont fisherman told officers of the Department of Environmental Conservation that he’d caught ciscoes in Chaumont Bay. The news was a welcome surprise, as ciscoes were believed to be extinct from the bay. Research followed, and by 2013 the DEC, the U.S. Geological Society, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Cornell researchers were able to confirm spawning in Chaumont Bay. Ellen George, a PhD student in the department of Natural Resources at Cornell University, is leading the ongoing research on our bay (with financial support from the Nature Conservancy). Ms. George was kind enough to speak with me at length for this article.
Ciscoes can only live in cold, clean water. Adults come into Chaumont Bay in late November to late December to spawn, after which they normally return to the cold depths of the lake. The Fish and Wildlife Service researchers have caught ciscoes and implanted them with acoustic t
ransponders so they can follow their movements around the lake. They were surprised to see that some ciscoes chose to linger in Chaumont Bay throughout the winter. Their eggs hatch when the water begins to warm and the ice breaks up, around April.
The intense interest in researching the ciscoes is due to their importance in the natural food webs of Great Lakes fish. Ciscoes eat zooplankton in cold depths. Ciscoes are a nutritious prey fish to native species such as lake trout, northern pike, walleye, and Atlantic salmon. The introduction of invasive species such as alewife and rainbow smelt has thrown the food web into disarray: invasive species eat the zooplankton which would normally support the ciscoes, and the Atlantic salmon have turned to invasive fish as a food source. With a much lower level of thiamine than ciscoes, the salmon that eat them have nutritional deficiencies that lead to reproductive problems, and as a result, a decline in their population.
The researchers will be returning to Chaumont Bay after Thanksgiving to observe spawning. Look for them in bright orange outfits as they work near Johnson Shoal, Herrick Shoal, and Middle Shoal. We’re working on setting up a public information session so they can share more about their important work.
Although the commercial market for Lake Ontario ciscoes long ago collapsed, Lake Superior, the coldest and least polluted of the Great Lakes, has a healthy cisco industry. Their ciscoes are sold smoked as “lake herring” and their eggs are collected as “Bluefin caviar” and marketed in Scandinavia.
If you happen to catch a cisco, the researchers would love to hear from you. Please contact Ellen George at firstname.lastname@example.org. More information about cisco research is also available on her Twitter account, @greatlakescisco.
Interview with Ellen George, PhD candidate at Cornell University
Interview with Venus Vandewalker, commercial fisherman on Lake Ontario
Confirmation of cisco spawning in Chaumont Bay, Lake Ontario using an egg pumping device,Journal of Great Lakes Research, Volume 43, Issue 3, June 2017, pages 204-208
The “Ciscoe Chasers” of Chaumont Bay by Richard F. Palmer and The Lyme Heritage Center
US Fish and Wildlife Service
New York State DEC
U. S. Geological Survey
The Nature Conservancy https://www.nature.org/magazine/archives/greater-lakes.xml