Only 12 commercial fishing captains still hold licenses to fish reef nets in the Pacific Northwest out of a fleet that once numbered hundreds. The distinctive fishing technique dates back thousands of years as an aboriginal method of catching salmon. Its practitioners today say the gear should proliferate as the preferred means of harvesting healthy salmon runs while avoiding fragile stocks.
If you are among the minority of people who have seen the rare and eye-catching reef net fishing gear on the water, you probably remember the sight. A spotter on an oscillating tower, and often a second spotter watching the underwater camera feeds, warns the crew to raise the net quickly when they see the flashes of a school of salmon entering the net stretched between two barges pontoons. The small barges are anchored in front of a funnel of lines and ribbons facing the rising tide – that, the artificial reef that gives the reef net its name.
“It’s really an amazing thing that this exists and the way it’s all done,” said Matthew King, who took a sabbatical from his Los Angeles-based job in commercial real estate development to join a team at reefnet to the summer. “It was an exciting experience, to say the least.”
King was part of the crew led by commercial reef net fisherman Riley Starks, whose gear is anchored at the end of a row of other reef net rigs in Legoe Bay on the west side of Lummi Island in North Puget Sound. The 2022 season kicked off with one day fishing for prized Fraser River sockeye, then seven days for coho in September and now chum salmon in October.
Starks is passionate about bringing reef nets back into the mainstream. He even founded a non-profit organization called the Salish Center for Sustainable Fishing Methods.
“It would thrive. It’s fun, fun fishing,” Starks said of the modernized take on the old practice of fishing.
But more important than fun, he said, was the selectivity of this fishery. The fancy word for societal good is to reduce “bycatch mortality,” such as not inadvertently killing protected chinook salmon that endangered orcas need to eat.
“When the other types of gear come out, they assume a certain number will be killed,” Starks said. “They assume zero will be killed here.”
Starks made the remark after watching his longtime crew member Roger Kubalek sort the morning’s catch into a live tank. Kubalek gently lifted a large chum salmon, an out-of-season species that September day, and threw it into the sea unharmed. A wild Chinook also showed up swimming with the target coho and was released.
The strong current carried away these lucky fish. But reefnetting fans are definitely paddling against the tide.
Only one tribal reef netting gear remains in active use. Eleven non-tribal permits exist for the region around Lummi Island and the San Juan Islands. But the gear isn’t fished heavily because salmon runs from the Fraser River and Puget Sound only allow about 20 days of fishing per year, Starks said.
“The reason people don’t want to do reefnet is because we’re given so little time so we can’t really catch much. But we could catch a lot if given the time,” Starks said. “It’s a catch-22 situation.”
“Change is hard,” he continued, while acknowledging that other, more popular commercial fishing methods are much more profitable.
Cross-border interest among some tribal members as well
In addition, members of several Sea Salish tribes have held workshops and demonstrations of reef netting to rekindle interest in what is for them a centuries-old tradition that has almost died out. Lummi Nation fisherman, Troy Olsen, was one of the organizers who showed the young people of the tribe how to hang the net in an original way between two canoes. He said the onset of the coronavirus pandemic has put Lummi’s reef net revitalization project on ice and the equipment is currently in storage with uncertain future prospects.
Across the Canada-US border on Vancouver Island, the WSÁNEĆ (Saanich) First Nation was inspired to start a culturally-accurate reef net construction project, in part an extension of the Master’s thesis by a member at the University of Victoria. The traditional method of fishing disappeared completely in British Columbia waters after the government banned reef nets just over a century ago, categorizing them as illegal fish “traps”.
“We are moving in the right direction in revitalizing this technology that has been banned by the government,” Reef Net Program Manager Landon Underwood said in a WSÁNEĆ blog post. “Last year we made the net and had problems with it tangling, this year we had no problem getting it out and hopefully next year we catch some fish.”
Olsen said the economics and logistics of commercial reef net fishing are daunting, not least because a license holder must also secure nearby and invariably expensive shore land from which to stage the operation. But he said there was a cultural imperative for the reef nets to survive.
“Today we see it as a commodity. But it’s more than a commodity. It’s something that belongs to the Salish Sea. It was there and it always should be there,” Olsen said. over the phone during a break between setting and removing a gillnet. on the Nooksack River.
The Lummi Nation could potentially issue new reef net fishing licenses if fishing families were interested, but there is no indication anyone new is willing to make the investment.
Non-tribal commercial reef net licenses were capped about two decades ago by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. Starks said raising the cap would require either a sustained rebound in salmon stocks or the reallocation of other Puget Sound gear licenses to reef netting practitioners. The latter would be politically “dangerous”, he observed, although that did not stop him from floating the idea of making reef nets the main method of salmon harvesting in the Salish Sea.
“As a commercial fisherman, you don’t want to stick your neck out and say anything derogatory about other types of gear,” Starks said. “I’m on point – I’m 72 now – honestly, I don’t care what other people think anymore. I know what’s right.”
Starks’ nonprofit, the Salish Center, takes a decidedly modern approach to raising money for an education and advocacy campaign. Starks outlined a plan to create and sell non-fungible tokens – or NFTs – this fall and winter. The collectible digital instruments would depict individual killer whales from the Critically Endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale pods of the Pacific Northwest to highlight the connection to Chinook salmon and sustainable fishing methods.
“You have to look at the big picture and see what people are interested in,” Starks said with a laugh. “We have to go meet people where they are.” [Copyright 2022 Northwest News Network]