New York had access to an extraordinary abundance of domestic and commercial
clamming, crabbing and oystering, and fresh, salt and brackish water fishing.
Seafood fed the rich and poor, and fish was prepared for breakfast lunch
and dinner. Eventually the waters of New York Harbor were polluted, and
industrial construction changed the water front, limiting access and eliminating
aquatic breeding grounds. The restoration of wetlands, cleaning up of
the Hudson river, and the relocation of much of the harbor traffic has
recently begun to make the waters more favorable for fishing and shellfish,
but bringing back aquaculture and recreational fishing to New York Harbor
will take much more work and vigilance.
Though considerable oyster farming still went on in the sound, the
dredging of the Harlem Ship Canal, begun in 1889, changed the Bronx
waterfront forever. The New York Herald presented a picture of life
before the canal:
life of the bobtail clam, which has had its haunts in the marshy meadows
of the Harlem River, is fast drawing to a close. Within six short
months the luscious bivalve will cease to exist there, except
in the memories of the inhabitants of Fordham Heights, Kingsbridge,
and vicinity. No more will the blithesome clam digger, clad in long
rubber boots, a short fustian coat, and a red necktie, hie himself
to the flats when the tide is out and dig himself a bucketful of this
fruit for breakfast. The removal of dams in the long talked of ship
canal will put an end to his occupation. It will take away the vocation
of the angler for eels, and from a romantic, placid, lagoonlike estuary
it will transform the stream into a canal with swift-running currents,
in which few of the present inhabitants of its waters can exist. Here
and there along the banks of the big ditch a few small submerged nooks
may be left in their pristine state, but the locality will never again
be the happy hunting ground it has been in the past."
In 1889, the Hudson River shad catch was 4.3 million pounds. By the
mid-1940s, pollution had ruined the taste of shad in the Hudson.
Panfish & Blue Crabs
Greenpoint, Brooklyn was called "the garden spot of America" for its
tree-covered peninsula. The water surrounding it was filled with panfish
and blue crabs, providing recreation and food for Brooklyn residents.
Waterfront oil refineries and rendering plants ultimately polluted the
Oysters and Shellfish
Dumping industrial waste and raw sewage in the bay and the Hudson River
finally made oysters all around New York Harbor unsafe. Arthur Kill
oyster beds were shut in 1917 for health reasons. They were partially
reopened the next year, but were closed again by the City Health Commissioner
in 1924, due to an outbreak of typhoid traced directly to raw shellfish.