Coast Salish Reef-net Fishery, Part 2

  • By Russel Barsh
  • Posted 5/23/2021
  • Essay 21238
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Coast Salish peoples of the San Juan Islands and southern Gulf Islands used their unique reef-net fishing technology to harvest large quantities of sockeye salmon as the fish passed through the islands each summer, providing dependable winter food supplies and significant surplus for trade. Coast Salish reef-net sites remained productive as non-Indian settlement in the region grew through the second half of the nineteenth century, and Coast Salish reef-netters found a source of cash income by selling their catch to the salmon canneries springing up around the Salish Sea. But as recounted in this Part 2, the rise of commercial fishing ultimately led to significant decline in reef-netting, as reef-netters faced fierce and sometimes violent competition from fish-trap operators and fishing boats, and overfishing led to declines in salmon numbers. After fish traps were outlawed in Washington, reef-netting experienced a revival in the islands in the mid-twentieth century, with many non-Indians adopting the Salish technology. But salmon runs continued to dwindle, and the number of reef-net gears operating in San Juan County declined from more than 100 in the 1960s to around 20 in the 1980s and just 3 by 2021.

Reef Nets and the Traditional Economy

There is no question that good reef-net sites were always relatively few, probably never more than 50, giving them considerable economic value. Alternative methods of harvesting sockeye salmon were far less productive. In salt water, these fish are difficult to catch by hook and line. Once they enter the Fraser River, topography and hydrology restrict the use of efficient weirs or traps to the upper reaches of the watershed, at which stage the remaining sockeye salmon have roughly half of their body fat. Most of the indigenous peoples of the Fraser watershed were either limited to the use of dip-nets, or to the harvesting of smaller fish with fewer calories. Thus trade with those upstream villages contributed to the wealth of villages in the islands.

Traditionally, salmon were cleaned, split, and sun-dried before being bundled up in woven cat-tail bags for transportation and storage. Salmon cured this way would last through the winter. By the 1890s, however, fresh whole salmon were often delivered to canneries at Anacortes, Bellingham, and Friday Harbor. The output of the most productive reef-net sites was increased by deploying several gears in a row perpendicular to the current. Two were common, sometimes four or eight, and as many as 17 at one time at Point Roberts.

The productivity of reef-nets is suggested by Richard Rathbun's 1895 interview of Coast Salish reef-netters Joseph Cagey and Dick Edwards. They were operating eight gears off Iceberg Point on Lopez Island from July to September, landing sockeye salmon and some pinks for several weeks, followed by smaller numbers of coho salmon. While the sockeye were running, Cagey and Edwards estimated that they landed 3,000 to 4,000 fish on each outgoing tide, and sold them for 10 cents per pound. That would represent earnings of about $2,000 per day (equivalent to the purchasing power of about $60,000 per day today) to be divided among the captains and crew. This site was known as "Old Harry's" for Harry Samish (Xwəlxwáltən), who was the leader of a village on eastern end of Samish Island in the second half of the nineteenth century and is buried there.

Rathbun also interviewed Johnny Thomason, a crewman on the Chevalier gear at Stuart Island, who described selling sockeye and coho salmon to the new Friday Harbor cannery, then drying pink, chum, and king salmon for subsistence -- "We divide them up among the old folks" (Thomason interview). Friday Harbor paid 10 cents per pound but fishers could get 15 cents at Lummi Island. According to E. S. McCord, a Fairhaven lawyer also interviewed by Rathbun in 1895, Straits Salish reef-net gears at Lummi Island were landing 3,200 sockeye salmon per day, and captains earned $25,000 each summer by selling to the nearby Alaska Packers Association Semiahmoo cannery. Compared to other sources of wages in late nineteenth-century Washington -- and even more so, to wage-labor opportunities for Native Americans in farming and ranching regions of the West at that time -- reef-netting was a source of wealth and prevented post-Treaty Northern Straits families from being condemned to poverty.

While reef-netting has long been dominated by male owners and crews, traditionally it was broadly accepted for women to work on gears, as it was for them to crew other traditional Coast Salish fishing boats. In addition, it was common for a man to assert claims to a reef-net site through his wife.

Regional Village and Kinship Connections

In recent years, Treaty Tribes' assertions of "usual and accustomed" fishing grounds have often hinged on evidence that an ancestor of a contemporary tribal member fished a reef-net site there a century ago. While some sites were closely associated with a particular family and village for several generations, others were jointly owned by partners from different villages, even different language groups (who might be cousins or in-laws). For example, the nineteenth-century owners of the Four-Way site at Fisherman Bay, Lopez Island, were associated with Lummi Island villages but had Klallam relatives who fished with them. Similarly, while sites on northwest Orcas Island were last owned by "Boston Tom" Čəčíləm, who lived on Orcas but was often associated with Lummi, the site was crewed by Saanich and Cowichan relatives, and Tom's descendants live today on Vancouver Island, where some of them have Samish as their mother tongue.

At Lummi Island's Village Point, some gears were fished by Swinomish and Skagit captains who were in-laws of Lummi households. Locations at Point Roberts were associated variously with Lummi, Saanich, Samish, Semiahmoo, Skagit, Klallam and Malahat Cowichan villages, which is to say with speakers of three Coast Salish languages (Northern Straits, Halkomelem, and Lushootseed). Crews were even more diverse, especially after the establishment of canneries made it possible for captains to pay cash wages rather than shares of fish.

Conflicts with New Commercial Fisheries

By the 1890s, reef-netters were feeling the effects of large corporate-owned fish traps. Traps were much larger barricades, with permanent fences that extended hundreds to thousands of feet offshore. While a well-placed reef-net could capture thousands of salmon, a trap could impound tens of thousands. Canneries often drove pilings for traps on top of Coast Salish reef-net fishing sites, and cannery employees threatened Coast Salish fishers at gunpoint. Non-Indian fishers from Port Angeles were also bringing fishing boats to the islands and interfering with reef-net operation. White settlers destroyed reef-net camps as well, including at Village Point on Lummi Island. The Alaska Packing Company was landing 55,000 sockeye per day at Point Roberts while "the Indians get nothing"(McCord interview, 2). Elwood told Rathbun that when he began his fish-packing business in the 1870s, "I bought most of my fish from the Indians," but in recent years non-Indian fishers had "practically shut out" the Coast Salish fishery at Point Roberts and Lummi Island, with the result that the "Indians barely are eating enough" (Elwood interview, 3-5). Coast Salish reef-netters took the canneries to federal court, arguing Treaty-based rights to reef-net locations, but lost in 1897.

Reef-netters also faced growing competition from fishing boats. By the 1930s, a growing number of purse seiners fished the same bays as reef-netters in the islands, "running their leads right off the beach and cutting off any escape to the sea," as well as blocking diverting salmon from reef net gears (Vandersluys interview). "Reef Net Betty" Loman saw reef-nets slashed by competing purse-seine crewmen in the 1930s. She identified the purse-seine crews as recent immigrants from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe who were latecomers to the salmon fishery and swelled the ranks of vessel-based fishers. Incomes of Coast Salish fishers plummeted further as state officials issued ever greater numbers of commercial fishing licenses.

As the size of sockeye salmon runs dwindled and competition with fish traps and purse seiners increased in the early twentieth century, the number of gears that could be supported at each site shrank. The Iceberg Point site that supported eight gears in Cagey and Edwards' time barely supported a single gear by the 1950s. Meanwhile, an increasing number of reef-net gears were shared with, or transferred to, non-Native fishers. The Straits Salish Chevalier family relicensed their Stuart Island reef-net in 1905, 1926, 1929, and 1935, according to state records, but by the 1920s non-Natives licensed gears at Open Bay (Henry Island), Point Doughty and West Beach (Boston Tom's traditional Orcas Island sites), Mail Bay on Waldron Island, and Eagle Point on San Juan. Harry LeMaister, whose family identified as Samish, shared the Four-Way site at Fisherman Bay with several white neighbors on Lopez Island by the 1940s.

Legislation ostensibly aimed at conserving salmon stocks dealt additional blows to Coast Salish reef-netters. Canada outlawed reef-nets altogether in 1916 as part of a movement against overfishing by fish traps. Washington outlawed fish traps by initiative in 1933 but expressly exempted reef-nets from the prohibition. Differences in the two laws had unintended consequences. Saanich and Songhees people had traditional reef-net sites on Stuart, Henry, and San Juan Islands on the U.S. side of the border, and continued to help their U.S. relatives crew some of them until the 1940s. Suttles recalled that the Chevalier gear at Stuart Island had Saanich and Songhees crew in the 1940s. Earl Claxton Sr. told the author he was one of them. It was only much more recently that these collaborations dwindled, as the U.S.-Canada border was hardened.

At the same time, the elimination of traps on the U.S. side coincided with the Great Depression, and reviving reef-net fishing was embraced by a wave of non-Native Americans as an easy way to put food on their tables. About a hundred Coast Salish and non-Indian fishers were sharing Legoe Bay (Lummi Island) reef-net sites in the 1930s, according to Loman. A good day's catch was 500-600 salmon, but the average was closer to a hundred salmon, which could be sold for up to $10 apiece. This was much less than Cagey and Edwards were making at Iceberg Point in 1895, but in the depths of the Depression it was far preferable to the dole.

Technological Change and Decline

When Ralph Lillie, active in the Reef Net Owners Association, began working on one of the Shaw Island gears in 1951, the reef-net fishery appeared to be entirely "non-Indian" ("Ralph Lillie Correspondence ...). A great deal had changed technologically as well as socio-economically in the two decades since Initiative 77 banned fish traps. Chickenwire bags filled with rocks replaced rock anchors in the 1930s, and were replaced in turn by cast concrete blocks set with a hydraulic winch in the 1940s. Nylon nets and polypropylene lines were introduced in the 1940s and made gears much more durable.

Cleve Vandersluys set concrete anchors for most of the fleet in the San Juan Islands from the 1940s to 1960s. Hydraulic winches made it possible to move gears several times a season to try to improve the catch. According to Vandersluys, reef-netters tried setting gears in many new locations in the 1950s: "We would even catch fish and let 'em go and follow them [sometimes tagged by University of Washington biologists] ... "We tried lots of places, wherever the Indians said they were good, but [most had] too much current" (Vandersluys interview). Iceberg Point was one of the "Indian" locations that Vandersluys identified as especially challenging.

Vandersluys recalled 11 locations in San Juan County, with a total of 114 gears operating in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1980s there were only 21 gears in the county, six with Coast Salish owners and/or crew. As of 2021 only three remained active -- the Stuart Island gear owned by the Chevalier family of San Juan Island, Jack Giard's Four-Way gear at Lopez Island's Fisherman Bay, and one at Shaw Island's Reef Net Bay owned by Brendan Flynn of Lopez. Landings fell from hundreds per day in the 1980s to a few hundred for the season today. Lummi Island reef-netter Jerry Anderson estimated that in the 1960s there were 80 reef-nets in use, all but about 20 of them at Lummi Island and Point Roberts, and estimated they were responsible for 6 to 8 percent of total annual salmon landings on the U.S. side of the Salish Sea. This share of the salmon fishery declined sharply from the 1990s onward.

At Shaw Island, outside "Squaw Bay" (renamed Reef Net Bay in 2015) there were 10 gears in the 1950s, but only a few were effective at catching salmon; by the 1970s there were only five. In 2021 only Flynn's gear remained in use there. From 1971 to 1993, Ralph Lillie's gears at Shaw had a half-dozen good years with landings of several thousand salmon and gross receipts of $30,000 to $40,000. During the same time period, the Chevaliers' Stuart Island gear had an outstanding catch in 1985 with gross receipts of $100,000, and the Four-Way gear on Lopez Island was the most consistently productive. The gear at Iceberg Point that had been "Old Harry's" also had one outstanding season in the 1980s with 3,400 salmon landed, but by the 1990s the San Juan Channel gears experienced a steep drop in salmon abundance. Some reef-netters attributed the drop to changing migration patterns, which was subsequently confirmed.

Judicial recognition of Treaty Tribes' right to a fair share of the state salmon fishery in the 1974 "Boldt Decision" ironically resulted in further decline of the reef-net fishery. Tribes added to the purse-seine fleet and court-supervised regulators reduced the number of days that non-Treaty licensees could fish. Time closures were a disaster for the reef-net fishery, because reef-netters cannot move gears to where salmon may be at the time of an opening -- which can be announced just days or hours in advance. As reef-net landings tumbled, many owners sold their gears to a state buy-back program. Others simply pulled their boats up on the beach and abandoned them. Until recently there was a reef-net graveyard in Reef Net Bay on Shaw Island. Another graveyard remains at Fisherman Bay Spit on Lopez Island.

Ecological Footprint

Indian reef-net fishing methods did not threaten the survival of salmon runs, according to John Elwood, founder of the Semiahmoo cannery that became the nucleus of the Alaska Packers Association in 1891 but, with the rapid spread of huge fish traps and purse seines in the 1890s, he feared that salmon would be "used up by this generation" (Elwood interview, pp. 27, 39). Elwood also complained to federal officials about the impacts of sawmills and sewage from the growing cities in Puget Sound -- "It is a [question] we realize needs some attention here" (Elwood interview, pp. 51-52). Unfortunately, his concerns went unheeded for nearly a century.

When Coast Salish treaty fishing rights were before the courts in the 1970s, the Reef Net Owners Association argued that reef-net technology was the most efficient and least likely to harm salmon stocks. Unlike traditional river-weir fisheries, reef nets are never a "terminal gear," so it is impossible to separate reef-netting's impact on spawning escapement from the upstream and downstream impacts of other salmon fisheries such as purse seiners, gill netters, trollers, and anglers. Nevertheless, several structural factors support reef-netters' claims. A reef-net is anchored and relatively small, with a gape or opening of no more than 200 feet. The net bag is also relatively small compared to, say, a modern purse-seine vessel with an 1,800-foot-long net forming a 500-foot diameter bag. Purse-seine nets enclose 150 times greater volume than reef nets. And they can move to wherever fish-finding sonar indicates there are large aggregations of fish. In historical practice, purse seines in the San Juan Islands fished the same points of land as reef-nets, often on opposing tides, but had the advantage of mobility. It is easier for salmon to evade a reef-net gear and more likely that many will escape.

Furthermore, the reef-net crew can selectively sort fish impounded by the net, releasing non-target species and subadult salmon unharmed. This selectivity is not possible with trolled, gill-netted, or brailed purse-seined fish, which are dead or severely injured before they can be examined and sorted on deck. Likewise, reef-net fishing is less likely to entangle marine birds or marine mammals. In this respect, bycatch can be minimized, significantly reducing the collateral ecological impacts of harvesting adult salmon at sea.

From a broader ecological perspective, reef-netting contributes the least to climate change. All other contemporary sport and commercial gears use powerboats as a platform and burn fuel to chase after the fish they target. Once anchored for the season, reef-nets only require dinghies to move the crew and catch from ship to shore, which for most reef-net fishing sites amounts to just a few hundred yards. While current data on fuel consumption rates for Salish Sea salmon fisheries are not available, a recent study of the offshore tuna fishery found that purse-seine vessels -- which lead the Northwest salmon fishery in total landings -- burn on average 1.1 kg of fuel per kilogram of tuna caught. This was more efficient than other gear types engaged in tuna fishing, all of which are vessel-based, but high compared to reef-net fishing. One confounding factor is the average size of the catch per trip, which can be much higher for a mobile vessel than an anchored net, at least under current conditions with much-reduced salmon runs and severe restrictions on the number of days each season that reef-nets are permitted to fish.

To see Part 1, click "Previous Feature"


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