Salmon Bank (San Juan Island)

  • By Mike Vouri
  • Posted 2/16/2018
  • Essay 20510
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The Salmon Bank is a submerged shelf located off the southern shore of San Juan Island along the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Created by the advance and retreat of the continental ice sheet, the shelf's shallow depths, ranging up to half a mile off shore, attract annual runs of salmon and halibut that over millennia have drawn fishers and attendant cultures to the region. European explorers in the late eighteenth century remarked on American Indians and First Nations fishers tapping into this bounty while encamped above the island's shoreline. By the mid nineteenth century the British Hudson's Bay Company (HBC) was purchasing Native-caught fish for Pacific Rim markets, while American boundary surveyors promoted the sockeye run's economic potential. Only a few decades later Native fishers were largely supplanted by non-Indians who, employing industrial techniques financed by big capital, over a 40-period to 1934 nearly exhausted the resource. Save for an occasional big run, the Salmon Bank today witnesses a only a scattering of purse-seine vessels each July as hikers enjoy views from the bluffs of the National Historical Park at American Camp.

The Salmon Bank

Before there was the South Beach at American Camp, known and loved by by San Juan Islanders and visitors from around the world as a summer picnic ground and a spot to watch winter storms, there was the Salmon Bank lying along that stretch of shoreline near the island's southeastern tip. For thousands of years, it was a place to make a living. Spanish explorers during expeditions up the Strait of Juan de Fuca conducted from 1790 to 1792 reported "an incredible quantity of salmon and numerous Indians" (Wagner).

San Juan Island, the westernmost of the hundreds of islands that make up San Juan County, is located on the north side of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, opposite Washington's Olympic Peninsula, and on the east side of Haro Strait, across from Canada's Vancouver Island. South Beach is part of the island's southern shoreline that extends westward along the Strait of Juan de Fuca from Cattle Point, the island's southeastern tip, for a short distance before angling northwest along Haro Strait. Geologically speaking, the Salmon Bank is a submerged ridge paralleling the South Beach shoreline for about a mile, up to half a mile from shore and some 10 fathoms deep. It was formed by moraines left by the glaciers that receded from the area starting about 18,000 years ago. But the Salmon Bank's cultural and economic impact reverberates to this day.

Coast Salish and Northwest Coast peoples from across the region reef-netted or trolled for salmon on the Salmon Bank and along the rocky shorelines of the San Juan Islands for generations. Evidence of their ancestors dates back many thousands of years. The five salmon runs -- chinook (king), sockeye, coho (silver), pink (humpbacked or humpies), and chum -- were so extensive that, short of ecological disaster or broken rhythm, those fishing from the islands could not miss.

Four methods were used: hook and line (trolling), encirclement (purse and beach seining), entanglement (gillnetting), and entrapment (reef-netting). Hook and line involved trolling outboard in deep water and was employed mainly for immediate consumption or later for the fresh-fish market. Troll-caught species were mainly chinook and coho, the chinook available year round and the coho spring through fall. Chum, leaner fish more suitable for preservation, were speared, gaffed, or trapped in the fall along the mouths of fresh-water streams, as were fall-running coho.

However, reef-netting, an entrapment method, was the big-money (as it were) process involving the harvesting of hundreds of fish at a time. The traditional method, targeting sockeyes and pinks, involved positioning two canoes in parallel with a net submerged between them, a bunt on one end. The object was to entrap the sockeye salmon that feed in shallows. An artificial reef was created in deep water utilizing cedar-bark rope. "Float lines" (ropes interspersed with floats) running from both canoes held up the vertical sides of the "reef," while stones anchored a "lead" or bottom lines. Cross-ropes, often intertwined with eel grass, fooled the salmon into thinking they were grazing the sea floor. The salmon swam up the reef and into the net. When a satisfactory number were corralled, the net was lifted and the fish spilled into one of the canoes.

Each lift location was a resource owned by a family or clan who camped at sites on the beach or the heights above located near fresh water, usually in springs such as those seeping from the bluff at South Beach, and well open to take advantage of direct sunlight to dry the fish. The most common shelters were mat houses, although the clan leader would stay in a plank house at the head of the village in front of the smoking racks.

"Salmon Abound"

Sixty years after the arrival of the Spanish explorers, James Alden Jr. (1810-1877) of the U.S. Coast Survey, on his first visit to the San Juans, in October 1853, enthused about the maritime resources:

"Salmon abound in great quantities at certain seasons of the year, when the water in every direction seems to be filled with them ... The Hudson's Bay Company has a fishing establishment at San Juan ... where I am informed they have put up this season 600 barrels of salmon" (Alden to Bache).

Native American reef-netters and long-line fishers as well had found a ready market with the Hudson's Bay Company two years earlier. In response to the failure of a fishery on the Fraser River the HBC established stations along the Salmon Bank, purchasing salmon from the Indians, then salting and barreling the fish for shipment to San Francisco, Hawaii, and other points around the Pacific. Hudson's Bay employee estimates of yields ranged from 300 to 1,500 barrels annually through the end of the decade. The company paid one blanket (worth $4) for 60 fish, which filled one barrel that brought from $8 to $14.

Not one month after Alden's report, James Douglas (1803-1877), the colonial governor of British Columbia, underscoring the importance of the San Juans to the British Empire, wrote London that "These islands are exceedingly valuable, not only on account of their relative position to Vancouver Island, but also from the fact that their shores and inlets abound with salmon and other fish which form a productive export and an inexhaustible form of great wealth" (Douglas to Newcastle, Foreign Office).

Caleb Kennerly (ca. 1830-1861), a naturalist with the U.S. Boundary Survey, observed the fishing operation at the Salmon Bank and realized its potential. In an 1860 report, he proclaimed the Salmon Bank to be "perhaps the best fishing grounds on Puget Sound," where "numerous bands of Indians" seasonally camped ashore, and predicted that those "with the proper appliances" for fishing could make money (Kennerly to Campbell).

Fish Traps

Those "proper appliances" soon came to pass to fulfill the need brought by the rise of the food-canning industry after the Civil War. Salmon canning was introduced on California's Sacramento River in 1864 and then moved to the Columbia River, Puget Sound, and eventually Alaska as stocks played out in each location. After Washington achieved statehood in 1889, the expansion of transcontinental railroads in the region made it possible to ship canned fish from the state across the nation, which in turn established Washington fishing as a "new" industry worthy of outside investment. Big capital poured in, bringing with it ability to adapt and expand local indigenous fishing methods on a massive scale. As a result, the reef-net method of entrapment bred the fish trap, a stationary system designed to trap thousands of fish in one "lift," and then preserve the catch for tables throughout North America and beyond (Radke).

In principle, the fish-trap technique was similar to reef-netting, corralling sockeye gathered in eddies closer to shore, which previously could only be caught with seine or gill nets. The trap apparatus and its attendant barriers were placed to block the path of spawning salmon, which never turn around. The migrating fish first encountered 400-yard-long leads (giant submarine fences) and swam along them into the "hearts," a series of inverted "V"s, which forced them into the "pot" or corral, a tarred web bag hung from pilings that could hold as many as 70,000 fish at a time. From there the catch was directed into the spiller, a net from which the fish were dumped into an awaiting scow via a roller that compressed the net (much as one squeegees water from a window surface). Scows were filled and hauled fish to canneries, including one established in 1894 in Friday Harbor, the largest town on the island and the seat of San Juan County.

The state and seasonal weather rigidly policed and enforced trap operations. The traps and leads -- as many as 12 off South Beach alone -- were installed in the spring. The piles that formed the leads were as much as 85 feet tall (water ranged from 20 to 65 feet deep along the Salmon Bank) and were driven into the seabed by pile drivers with three-ton drop hammers. Hard-hat divers affixed the wire mesh to the piles, which also provided stable platforms for the trap mechanisms.

The entire set-up was dismantled (the pile holes marked) and stored ashore over the winter.

It was a frenzied operation once the sockeye started running. The crews were based in a complex of dormitories, maintenance shops, and a dining hall that could seat from 60 to 70 workers. The camp was located east of where the main South Beach parking area was later constructed, back from the driftwood line.

In the Cannery

In the cannery in Friday Harbor, men and women alike worked the canning lines. Fish were pitched from scows onto the cannery floor and then sent through a machine that cut off heads and tails and gutted the fish for dicing and packing. The cans were packed by hand around the clock in the damp building where the noise could be deafening. From there the cans would proceed to the cooker. By 1912, the newly organized Friday Harbor Packing Company (located where condominiums now overlook the Washington State Ferries dock) ranked fifth of 19 canneries in the greater Puget Sound/Northern Straits region.

Early on, many of the workers were from the Philippines or China. The 1900 U.S. Census listed nearly 50 Chinese in San Juan County. Some may have been smuggled into the country following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. But anyone wanting a job could find one in the mid 1890s by simply walking down to the cannery office where the Washington State Ferries slip is located today.

On a typical day, July 9, 1900, the cannery received 2,000 fish, resulting in 178 cases of sockeye, 35 cases of red spring salmon, and eight cases of white spring salmon. A few days later the catch was 5,790 sockeye and 540 spring salmon.

Astounding Quantities at a Severe Cost

But as efficient as these mechanisms were, they could only produce if the fish were there. Over an eight-year period, sockeye-salmon traps brought in from 300 to 800 fish daily on average, peaking at about 2,000 fish per daily lift from mid July to early August.

The year 1917 was an especially notable sockeye season, but the difference in volume over a 48-hour period that July was astounding. For example: A single trap, Pacific American Fisheries No. 549 on the Salmon Bank, bagged 28,000 sockeye in a day's lift on July 29, but nabbed only 1,500 the next day and a mere 134 on July 31. Trap No. 557 caught 17,000 on the 29th, followed by 200 on the 30th and 31st. Trap No. 547 was a little more fortunate declining from 21,000 on the 30th to 2,000 on the 31st and 1,960 on August 1.

The grand total of all salmon for the three traps in the 1917 season was 101,788 (45,303 sockeye and 51,632 pinks) for No. 557; 110,571 (69,848 sockeye and 34,921 pinks) for No. 549; and 89,043 (63,094 sockeye and 23,406 pinks) for No. 547. The balances of the tallies were silvers, chum, steelhead, and king salmon.

Any way you look at it, July 29, 1917, was one the killer days in the history of these traps and made the season for their crews, and very likely the other nine traps on the Salmon Bank.

But predictably the cost was severe to Indian fishers who had operated reef-net lift sites on the southern end of Lopez Island and up the coast on San Juan for hundreds of years. Long-line fishers were affected as well. Most of the Indians interviewed by the Indian Claims Commission during 1927 proceedings in support of claims against the government for violating treaty rights maintained that fish traps and then non-Indian purse seiners displaced the Indians from these traditional fisheries. Truly, Kennerly's "appliances" were profoundly realized in the San Juan Islands.

Purse Seiners

While industrial-scale technology gave the edge to the fish traps and the corporations that bankrolled them, it also brought fierce competition in the form of the purse-seine fishery. In the late nineteenth century purse-seine fishermen, Indian and non-Indian alike, were still rowing or sailing scows and skiffs from shore in search of salmon schools to encircle with their nets. The work was arduous and the returns limited in the face of fish traps, even with tugs towing them to the fishing grounds. It also was not uncommon to seine from the beach and haul in the net with horse teams.

However, in 1896 the 5-to-7-hp Frisco Standard gasoline engine arrived on the scene and it wasn't long until fishers realized it could be easily adapted to their vessels by mounting the engine forward and protecting it with a ventilated box. Among the pioneers at retro-fitting skiffs with 5-hp gasoline engines were the Sayres brothers of Bainbridge Island and Skansie brothers of Gig Harbor. Both families converted eight-oar skiffs by 1902, the Sayres family fittingly naming theirs the Pioneer. Around 1910, the Skansies built from scratch the seine launch Navigator, the first such vessel in the region. As with all new technologies, the engines were temperamental and skilled mechanics scarce. Nevertheless, fishermen either converted or lost the race to the Salmon Bank. Engines aside, the catch still had to be hauled from the sea by hand.

Skiffs tied to the stern would be rowed out from the seiner with one end of the net, while the seiner circled the school of fish in the opposite direction and made the "wrap." (Later the skiffs, now powered by marine engines, would do the circling and reconnect with the seiner.) A turntable mounted on the stern of the vessel facilitated pulling and stacking the net for the next layout. The table, pivoted in the center, could be swung 90 degrees to either side. The roller on the aft edge of the table made pulling easier.

During the early days of the purse-seine fishery on the Salmon Bank, the boats arrived from around Puget Sound and crews set up housekeeping ashore because the vessels were not large enough to house their crews. While a few brave souls risked the tides on the beach, most crews pitched their tents or threw up makeshift shacks on farms giving onto the bluffs. The farmers dug wells to provide fresh water for drinking, cooking, and laundry.

Long-time islander John Dougherty in the 1920s remembered such shacks, mainly occupied by Indians, in nearly every cove along the Salmon Bank, including a few at Grandma's Cove (a short distance west of South Beach), the site of the old Hudson's Bay Company landing.

Fish Traps Banned

Following a record sockeye run in 1913 (450,000 cases packed) a rockslide at Hell Gate up the Fraser River devastated sockeye spawning grounds. The damage was repaired, but the huge sockeye runs on Salmon Bank were significantly diminished. The fish-trap corporations saw their profits begin to slide after 1917, the result of smaller returns of fish coupled with the $12,000 average annual installation cost of each trap. There was also the increased competition from the growing purse-seining fleet.

National Park Service (NPS) anthropologist Jacilee Wray explained in her landmark 2003 study The Salmon Bank: An Ethno-historic Compilation:

"As the purse seiners became more competitive with the fish traps, animosity grew between the two factions, the seiners believing they were victims of a 'colonial empire' because giant corporations such as Pacific American Fisheries (who bought the Friday Harbor Canning Company in 1899) owned everything from 'trap to can' and seemed to care little about conservation of the resource" (Wray).

By the late 1920s, the purse seiners allied with sport fishers and the two groups campaigned successfully for a statewide ban on fish trips. Voters approved Initiative 77 in 1934 with 65 percent in favor. Overnight the fish traps were gone and jobs were reduced dramatically on San Juan Island. Many cannery workers returned to family farms, raising crops for the pea cannery that had begun operation in 1922. Those who could afford to bought purse seiners.

Twenty-first Century Fishing and Legacies of Earlier Eras

Late in the second decade of the twenty-first century, purse seining continues on the Salmon Bank. Park visitors can still hear the roar of motorized skiffs making sets and the clanking of the machinery reeling in the nets. However, save for a record sockeye run in 2012, the fishery has never quite reached the volumes recorded in the early 1960s, when the salmon catch in Washington was estimated at more than 1.5 million fish, worth $375,000 to the fishers and $1.25 million to the canners. Those volumes were soon followed by marked declines in Fraser River salmon runs. Wray cites several factors, among them "the Boldt decision [in 1974 that entitled Indian fishers to 50 percent of the catch as provided in treaties with the U.S. government], the proliferation of farmed salmon, and threatened and endangered stocks" (Wray).

Meanwhile, in the post-World War II era, the ancient Indian sites on the Salmon Bank became the focus of archaeology field schools conducted by the University of Washington, the first in 1946-1947 under the direction of Dr. Arden King of Tulane University. Some of King's pits can still be seen from Alaska Packer's Rock at the end of Salmon Banks Road at American Camp. Dr. Carroll Burroughs of Mesa Verde National Park followed King in 1948.

When San Juan Island National Historical Park was created in 1966, the federal government acquired all the land that had encompassed fish-trap operations at the Salmon Bank off South Beach, and archaeological activities continued. Some were under the direction of archaeologist Dr. Julie Stein, later director of the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.

A selection of pre-contact objects, many related to fishing, collected by the field schools is on view in a case in the NPS visitor center at American Camp. The artifacts include serrated hooks, rock weights, and spear points -- legacies of a culture that thrived for millennia on the island and the Salmon Bank just off its shores.


Henry R. Wagner, Spanish Explorations in the Strait of Juan de Fuca (Santa Ana, CA: Fine Arts Press, 1933); Wayne Suttles, "Prehistoric and Early Historic Fisheries in the San Juan Archipelago," unpublished report prepared for National Park Service, San Juan Island National Historical Park, Friday Harbor, Washington; Boyd C. Pratt, "The Disputed Islands, Ordinary Life in Extraordinary Times: The San Juan Archipelago, 1850-1874," unpublished manuscript, 2008, pp. 7-12, San Juan Island National Historical Park; James Alden to Alexander Bache, October 31, 1853, E-191, RG76, National Archives, Washington, D.C.; C. B. R. Kennerly to Commissioner Archibald Campbell, February 20, 1860, in Journals of Exploring Surveys: Geographical Memoir of the Islands between the Continent and Vancouver Island in the Vicinity of the 49th Parallel of North Latitude, Appendix E, E-198, RG76, National Archives; Report of George Gibbs, Geologist, of an Examination of San Juan Island and of the Cowichan Archipelago and Channel, March 18, 1859, RG46, National Archives; Gibbs to Parke, February 25, 1858, Northwest Boundary Survey, File E-223, Box 20, RG46, National Archives; James Douglas to Newcastle, November 24, 1853, FO 115, vols. 20-172, 1809-1856, National Archives of Great Britain; The Northwest Boundary -- Discussion of the Water Boundary Question: Geographical Memoir of the Islands in Dispute and History of the Military Occupation of San Juan Island (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1868); "Orcas, Shaw, and San Juan Islands, Sheet t2330" (U.S. Coast & Geodetic Survey map), copy available at University of Washington, Puget Sound River History Project website accessed December 30, 2017 (; Jacilee Wray, The Salmon Bank: An Ethnohistoric Compilation (Olympic National Park/San Juan Island National Historical Park, 2003); Arden King, "Cattle Point: A Stratified Site in the Southern Northwest Coast Region" in Memoirs of the Society for American Archaeology No. 7.( Menasha, WI: The Society of American Archaeology and Tulane University, 1950); "First Pacific Coast Salmon Cannery Site," National Park Service National Historic Landmarks Program website accessed February 9, 2018 (; August C. Radke, Pacific American Fisheries, Inc.: History of a Washington State Salmon Packing Company, 1890-1966 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Company, 2002); "San Juan County Real Center of Salmon Fishing Industry," San Juan Islander, May 16, 1913, p. 1; The San Juan Islands: Illustrated Supplement to the San Juan Islander, 1901; Online Encyclopedia of Washington, "Skansie Shipbuilding Company of Gig Harbor" (by Katie Chase ), (accessed February 3, 2017); J. A. Eckrom, An Excellent Little Bay: A History of the Gig Harbor Peninsula (Gig Harbor: Gig Harbor Peninsula Historical Society & Museum, 2004); James A. Cole, Drawing on Our History: Fishing Vessels of the Pacific Northwest and Alaska (Seattle: Documentary Media, 2013); Mike Vouri and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society, Images of America: Friday Harbor (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2009); Mike and Julia Vouri and the San Juan Historical Society, Images of America: San Juan Island (Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing, 2010); Mike Vouri, The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay (Seattle: Discover Your Northwest and University of Washington Press, 2013); Duwamish et. al. v. United States, Court of Claims No. F-275 (1927).

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