Reef Net Fishing: Sustainabilty on the Salish Sea

In the spring of 1984, a team of scuba divers assembled on the rough cobble beach of Legoe Bay, located on the shores of Lummi Island in the Salish Sea.

Along with a crew of archaeology students, their purpose was unusual. They were not there to search out the sunken remains of a ship but rather to investigate stories that had been told on this island long before any of them were born. A story about stones.

Beneath the surface, they found what they were looking for: irregular stones, unlike those that usually covered the seafloor in this area, often angular, all of a similar size, and in a pattern readily recognizable as ancient anchor stones, traditionally used in reef net fishing, proving that reef netting at Legoe Bay had been going on for a long time.

Some members of the crew are battered by the jackhammer-dynamo of salmon in full frenzy as they are flung past them, leaving them wiping scales from their faces.

Exclusive to the Salish Sea, reef netting, a subsistence style of salmon fishing invented by the Coast Salish tribes that call the region home, has existed for at least 1,800 years. Unlike tribes living at the mouths of great rivers where salmon consistently returned each fall, the people of the straits used reef netting to intercept Fraser River salmon as they made their long end-run around Vancouver Island northward toward their natal rivers. Traditionally, their nets were woven from willow bark and secured to anchor stones by heavy lines made of cedar, then suspended between two canoes creating an artificial reef that would entice salmon to the surface. In this way, native fishermen were able to stockpile sufficient amounts of fish to last until the salmon returned.

Historically practiced throughout the San Juan archipelago, today reef netting takes place in only a handful of bays.

 A passive fishing method, unique among the schemes humans have dreamt up for acquiring finfish, it requires no lures, hooks, or spears. Salmon are simply lofted from the sea in the upturned palm of a net, which is why reef netting today is one of the most sustainable fishing methods in the world. Non-targeted species are plucked from the live wells and tossed back, earning reef netting a by-catch rate of less than one percent. Today, onboard winches are powered using solar energy, and barges are stationary, meaning no fossil fuels are burned chasing fish. It’s not a fishery that has rid itself of all the problematic trappings of modern fishing; it’s a technique that simply never had them.

And, it may be our best hope to save our salmon.

Watching and waiting. Photo by Nick Belcaster

 

The call finally came on a Thursday. “Well, looks like they’re giving us a day to fish. We’ll see you on the beach, just wave and we’ll collect you.”

The speaker was Ian Kirouac, president of the seafood collective Lummi Island Wild. I was to be given a close-up look at the art of reef netting.  Today, Legoe Bay is one of the only locations where a reef net season still occurs en masse, albeit with modernized equipment, and on the late August day that I arrived by skiff, Kirouac was perched high on an elevated platform above Rosario Strait, knuckles wrapped around the rail. As the ‘spotter,’ his is a simple job: find the fish. His eyes scan the sea with the gleam of a hunter-gatherer.

Down on the deck below, there’s a commotion, where some undercurrent of fish-sense has taken hold among the crew. Someone saw a jack jump far out, and now the crew is busy “reading tea leaves” in the currents and waves, attempting to divine some message from the broad wheeling of an eagle. Sometimes this forecast pans out, and the proof spills across the deck; other times, the signs are simply that: Signs. Just wind. Just wave.

But now another jumper is spotted, and it’s real, and the excitement is spreading. The buzz leaps from barge to barge, spanning across the wide belly of the bay. Kirouac has already seen the signs, of course, and later will explain to me that it’s all in the shimmer. I imagine it’s akin to how in wanting to see more stars, one might turn to catch them in your periphery, where light is better registered.

Then the command comes from above— Take ‘em!

Kirouac works a tangle of lines, and the ancient winches on deck howl as they hoist the net below the two barges. The fishermen below take their stances, and as the net nears the surface, the sea boils with the backs of salmon. Armfuls of net are hauled in until the fish are packed into a corner below the rails, then in one unified heave are hoisted over the lip and into the live wells on deck. Some members of the crew are battered by the jackhammer-dynamo of salmon in full frenzy as they are flung past them, leaving them wiping scales from their faces. The process takes less than a minute.

Hauling in the catch. Photo by Nick Belcaster

Bounty now secured, the fishermen begin the process of counting. Kirouac already has his eyes back on the water.

As fishing methods go, the catch is relatively small. A commercial seiner hauls in as many fish in a single day as a reef netter might catch in an entire season, but as Kirouac explains, it’s a question of quality over quantity. The term, artisanal is not a misnomer.

Here’s how it works: The two floating platforms are anchored in line with the direction of the flowing tide. From these platforms, an artificial reef of lines extends out and down, which coaxes the salmon to rise up and over a small net as they travel northward. Once spotters see a school of salmon swim over the net they make the call, and the salmon are hauled up and into the live wells on deck. Fish are then allowed to settle and are bled, which decreases the lactic acid in their flesh. Then they are quickly whisked away by tender to be put on slush ice, creating the highly superior final product that fish-eaters have come to clamor for.

Taking a stance with Kirouac up on the spotting tower, I observe the rhythms of the day on the water—the calls, the frenzied hauls, the lulls in between. Kirouac relays to me the near-history of reef netting: how when whites came to this island in the 1880s, they brought with them first fish traps, then purse seining boats that brought exponentially greater catches. Then, in the 1930s to 50s whites slowly gained ownership of the fisheries, and native fishers pivoted to purse seining in order to make a living. Today, he reports, the tide is showing the promise of turning: the Kinley family of the Lummi Nation has recently started using reef net gear in Legoe Bay, fishing cooperatively with Lummi Island Wild, a gesture that Kirouac called incredibly special to see.

“The only reason that the tribes would get back into it in modern times is the economics of it. If reef netting is to have a resurgence, it’ll be because native fisherman will bring it up with them,” Kirouac says.

“For now, we’re placeholders for the tradition.”

Vigilance. Photo by Nick Belcaster

 

The same year scuba divers were plotting out anchor stones in Legoe Bay a very important tally began. The scorekeeper was the Pacific Salmon Commission: a bilateral group of stakeholders representing the interests of commercial and recreational fisheries of the U.S., Canadian and tribal governments, and what they were counting was fish. A lot of fish at first, although the longer they kept count, the less fish they seemed to be counting.           

Soon it became apparent that something was very wrong with the numbers of salmon returning to the Salish Sea.  Populations of Chinook salmon, the kings of the Pacific, are down 60% since the Commission started tracking. Similar things can be said about silvers, sockeye, and chum salmon. A laundry list of compounding factors contribute to the decline: the impacts of dams, fertilizer leaching from stormwater runoff, a particularly bad landslide in British Columbia, but one stood out above the rest: overfishing. We were simply grocery bagging entire generations of fish.

The above fact is proven after the first successful haul of the day, when one of the fishermen hoists up a fish so that I might get a better look. It isn’t the mighty fat-bellied Chinook, or the hard-fighting silver, or the get-out-the-nice-flatware sockeye, but the salmon-cousin more often found in a can than anything else: the pink salmon. Although much-maligned in some parts as not worth much more than becoming dog food and commanding a lesser price, there is one thing absolutely true about them: there are many, many more of them than other Pacific salmon.

“Pink salmon in Alaska have a negative reputation, where they’re left on the dock after being caught,” Kirouac says, which in turn leads to a negative spiral of bad quality when the fish finally hit the plate. But because of the way they are fished from Legoe Bay, pink salmon off the reef net gears are prized.  Pink salmon isn’t just the catch of the day on the reef net. It’s the future.

Because of their two-year life cycles, pink salmon return to spawn much sooner than other species of salmon, and a 2018 study found that pink salmon quite possibly make up 70% of all salmon in North Pacific waters. The Fraser River pinks are still relatively plentiful. The season is decided by the Pacific Salmon Commission, and fishing doesn’t begin until enough salmon have made it upriver to sustain existing runs.

“Everybody gets together and has a very messy conversation,” Kirouac says. “But the priority is always the escapement numbers upriver.”

The reef net fishery has caught the attention of large buyers, including Patagonia Provisions. They often purchase an entire season’s worth of catch to sell as sustainable alternatives to more in-demand salmon species, with an eye on preserving the fisheries. Their smoked pink salmon find their way to shelves across the country and are part of a burgeoning movement to push pink salmon into the spotlight.

“Without people paying a higher price and placing a higher value on pinks, there won’t be an economic driver,” explains Kirouac.

The Salish Sea. Photo courtesy of Lummi Island Wild

 

The light starts to fade, and the tide has turned; it’s time to fold up shop. The crew hauls the net out of the water, and the barges are drawn in close for the evening, ready to be deployed again tomorrow—if another day of fishing is allowed. We all pile into the skiff, maneuvering ourselves in between the totes of salmon, and head for shore. As we motor in, a voice from near the bow of the boat asks what the price per pound looks like, asking for some barometer of how the day, but also the season, might pan out.

Kirouac, at the outboard, turns with a small flash in his eyes as if he had been waiting to hear the question and reports a number that elicits cheers from the crew. Some here have been reef netting for pink salmon for more than 20 years, and the number is the best they’ve ever heard. The best price in years; the best price it’s ever been. A record-breaker for pink salmon.

The sun dips below the horizon. The reef net story is still being told, the tide is still rising, the fish are still coming home, and the nets very well may save us yet.

Nick Belcaster is an adventure journalist who may be based in Bellingham, but he calls the ancient ice and spires of the North Cascades home. He contributes to local and national publications, and his work focuses on the intersection of recreation, energy, and the environment.

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