The World printed this article and I thought this article was interesting as it is about harvest be it tribal.
Sustainable salmon fishing the Lummi way
Once endangered, the ancient Lummi fishing technique of reef netting might be on the way back
LUMMI ISLAND, Whatcom County — If you’d sailed into the San Juan archipelago over 200 years ago, you might have seen Lummi fishermen in two dugout canoes anchored parallel to each other, a net in the water between them. A person in a watchtower a couple of feet off the bow of one canoe would stare into the water, watching and waiting for salmon to swim into the net.
It’s a technique the Lummi people believe was given to them by the Creator. It’s called reef netting, or sxwo’le in the Lummi language, and its central concept hasn’t changed in centuries. Fish swim up an artificial reef created from an ever-shallowing system of lines tied with ribbon, into a waiting net suspended between two boats. The net is hauled out of the water, fish sorted by species. There is no bycatch, no waste.
Reef netting is an integral part of Lummi culture that was once widely practiced. But shortly after the Point Elliott Treaty was signed in 1855, everything about how Indigenous people fished — from their waters and catch limits, to the land where they processed their catch — was forcibly taken away until the practice nearly died out. The Lummi have spent more than 100 years trying to claw their way back to it.
Now, as climate change drives interest in the sustainable fishing movement, reef netting is once again gaining a foothold. Helming the movement is a seafood wholesale company whose president is convinced this is the most sustainable way to fish, and a handful of Lummi elders who are determined to reintroduce this technique to a new generation of Indigenous fishermen. Here’s how they’re each working — and sometimes working together — to bring reef netting into the future.
Most sustainable way to fish?
Late in the fall fishing season last October, Ian Kirouac stands in a spotting tower on a boat in the middle of Legoe Bay, while spotter Sierra Montoya watches the cameras on another boat. The pattern of the water is hypnotic, like the snowy fuzz on a TV that’s not quite working.
Kirouac is the president of Lummi Island Wild, a Bellingham-based seafood wholesale company that sells only wild, sustainably caught fish. Kirouac has been reef netting for 20 years, having worked his way from deckhand to license holder. He holds two of the world’s 12 reef netting licenses and is committed to ensuring that this way of fishing continues.
Suddenly Montoya spots something and yells “go,” pulling a lever. Gears whir and shriek as the net rises from the water and the boats slowly come together. Kirouac slides down the ladder to join two deckhands and they finish hauling the net by hand, a small school of fish writhing as they spill into the live well built onto the boat.
Soon, the gears moan, the net slips back underwater and the boats reset to wait for more salmon. That process repeats. Final yield: about 200 fish caught — a relatively good day.
This is the modern-day version of reef netting — one of four main ways salmon are commercially fished in the Pacific Northwest. The technology has advanced beyond its two-canoes-anda- net Lummi origins, but the concept is fundamentally unchanged.
Reef netting differs from other fishing methods – gillnetting, beach seining and purse seining — in that the boats and net are stationary; they’re tethered to the sea bottom with minimal anchors. Fish must swim up an artificial reef directly into the waiting net.
That’s in part why Kirouac believes reef netting fishing crews working for Lummi Island Wild, haul in a net of salmon using a reefnet technique, a sustainable fishing technique, on Lummi Island on October 6, 2022. The reefnet fishery consists of crews working on a pair of pontoon boats anchored to the bottom of the sea using a technique to catch salmon sustainably. A net suspended between two of these pontoon boats is quickly hauled in when salmon are spotted swimming over it. The salmon are rolled into a netted live well with flowing seawater. When the live well starts to fill with fish, they are sorted – non-targeted species are returned to the ocean unharmed while the keepers are bled and tossed in brailers to produce the highest quality fish. On this day crews were keeping chum salmon and hatchery raised coho salmon. The fishing operation is powered by solar energy and modified winches. The Pacific Salmon Commission regulates the fishery, a collaboration between the U.S. and Canada. The salmon are headed to the Fraser River in Canada. Every person is fishing for Lummi Island Wild.
Eric Walker, of Everston, pulls a salmon from the live well while working onboard a pontoon boat using a reefnet fishing technique in Legoe Bay on Lummi Island in October is the most sustainable way to catch salmon.
Unlike in ocean seining and gillnetting, which involve boats chasing fish, setting floating nets at will and moving around, the only gas burned while reef netting is from the small skiffs that take fishermen to and from shore.
Then, there’s the salmon. Each fish is gently handled and sorted based on species — with nontargeted species released back into the water. The fish are bled by tugging a gill, and they die swimming instead of thrashing around on a deck, which, Kirouac says, results in pristine fillets free of bruising or blood during processing. Plus, like other salmon caught around the Salish Sea, their fat content is higher than salmon caught farther north because they’re harvested earlier in their spawning journey.
These fish are ultimately wrapped in distinct dark blue packaging, marketed as sustainably caught reef net salmon, priced slightly higher because of this distinction and sold at PCC Community Markets and REI, or through the Lummi Island Wild company website.
“Reef netting gets in your blood, and you develop a passion for the way we do things. It’s at the apex of quality, the apex of sustainability. It’s the best,” Kirouac says.
The sustainable seafood movement took off in the ‘90s and has grown since. Fish are labeled by country of origin, and as farm-raised, wild-caught, or line-caught, with people paying attention to those distinctions when they shop. Kirouac counts on that increasing appetite for sustainable fish. Even though reef-net-caught fish make up a small slice of the market — out of millions of pounds of salmon pulled out of Bristol Bay, Alaska, in 2021, reef netters caught only about 100,000 pounds — Kirouac thinks it’s imperative to keep this fishing method alive.
“These fish, these are special, they are more delicious,” he says.
Perhaps Kirouac is biased, but Kwasi Addae, a fisheries biologist who specializes in salmon management for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, agrees that reef netting has a unique place in commercial salmon fishing.
Part of Addae’s job is observing fisheries, and one day, on reef net gear just off Fisherman Bay on the west side of Lopez Island, Addae watched as fishermen caught salmon, put the catch in a cooler on a skiff and sold the day’s catch right to people waiting on shore via a direct retail license.
“This is so amazing, what a pristine way — and I use that term very loosely — to harvest,” Addae said, adding that watching the reef netting process drove home the meaning of buzzy terms like “farm to table” and “sustainable harvest.”
“It was really awesome to see that in play,” Addae said.
All told, it’s why Kirouac has rallied all reef net license-holders in the world to sell their catch to Lummi Island Wild.
The last licensed Lummi reef netter
Even though reef netting is a Lummi technique, only one of the 12 licenses in existence today is held by a Lummi tribal member.
How Ellie Kinley became the only Lummi tribal member with a reef netting license speaks to the racism and fishing rights politics that pushed an entire generation of Lummi people out of reef netting.
Kinley, an elected member of the Lummi Fish Commission, inherited her reef netting license when her husband Larry, a lifelong fisherman, died in 2018. Larry Kinley was a key part of the growth of the tribal commercial fishing fleet and a vocal reef netting advocate whose relationship with the technique began when he helped Lummi tribal elders build a traditional reef net gear setup with dugout canoes. Larry’s goal was to reintroduce reef netting to Lummi youth, and the Kinleys set out to update reef netting gear for modern times, creating a setup very much like what Kirouac’s crews use and naming the boat Spirit of Sxwo’le. The family is friendly with Kirouac, often selling their catch to Lummi Island Wild. After reef netting for a season at Cherry Point, Kirouac helped set the Kinleys’ anchors in Legoe Bay.
Key among the many reasons why Larry Kinley wanted to build a reef net boat was that he realized fishing among the Lummi population was dropping and there were Lummi children whohadneverbeenon a boat.
“Larry truly hoped he could work something out with Northwest Indian College and a whole generation of kids could be a part of fishing again,” Ellie Kinley says.
But since Larry died, Ellie says she’s stuck mostly to purse seining and beach seining when she fishes with their adult sons, Luke and Kyle. In part due to financial reasons, they haven’t set the reef net gear for a few seasons.
“The big boat’s the only chance we have to make money,” Kinley says. “As a fisher that chases fish, it is really hard to go back to a set-in position just hoping the fish come to you. That’s a real adjustment.”
As for why her family holds the only Lummi reef netting license around, Kinley muses that it might “go all the way back to being told we couldn’t do what we had done all our lives. How do you have every generation in your family run a reef net and be told it was illegal?”
A lost generation
For the Lummi people, reef netting has always held a magnetic allure: “It’s a fascinating way to fish. You’re at the mercy of the tide and wind and elements,” says Troy Olsen, a fisherman and former Lummi tribal chairman. “There is nothing quite like the feeling of reef netting.”
To understand why very few Lummi reef net today, we have to explore the dark journey from the dugout canoes of yesteryear to the present.
Commercial salmon fishing in the Pacific Northwest has a tangled, contentious history going back to the mid-1800s. It brings up decades-old hurt that, for some, still feels like a fresh wound. Today, a complex system of fishermen, tribes, scientists, and multiple state, federal and international governments work together to manage this wild, ever-changing resource that has always been part of the Lummi way of life.
Since time immemorial, generations of Lummi have observed the life cycle of various salmon species, charting migration patterns, spawning seasons and how changing weather affected it all. Reef netting sites were sacred, passed down through families for thousands of years.
“Reef net sites were owned sites that a family would say, ‘This is when we put the net in, here’s when we observe the first salmon ceremony, here’s who can fish there and who can’t,’” says Joshua L. Reid, citizen of the Snohomish Tribe of Indians and associate professor of history and American Indian studies at the University of Washington.
There was a kinship of the reef netting tribes — the Lummi, the Canadian Saanich and the Klallam — operating in harmony. But as country lines were drawn around the tribes and treaties were forcibly signed, they began losing touch with traditional reef netting grounds and practices while boxed in by boundaries thrust upon them.
While tribes were prepared to negotiate during the 1855 signing of the Point Elliot Treaty, Reid stresses that treaties didn’t give rights to Native peoples. Instead, “what they did was formalize reserved rights that Native peoples kept for themselves and extended rights — like fishing and hunting rights — to non-Natives.”
And while the Lummi people and other tribes held
FISHING from page B4 to B5
Indigenous people reef-netting for salmon at Lummi Island in June 1898. BERT HUNTOON / LUMMI ISLAND HERITAGE REEF NET FISHING COLLECTION
Fishing crews work on pontoon boats anchored to the bottom of the sea using a reefnet technique to catch salmon sustainably in Legoe Bay on Lummi Island in October. KAREN DUCEY / THE SEATTLE TIMES
onto their fishing rights in the Point Elliot Treaty, non-Natives soon began to encroach on the traditional fishing grounds. The Lummi people were incrementally pushed aside and fishing became war.
In 1892, the Alaska Packers company set fish traps at Point Roberts and Blaine, directly in front of Lummi reef net gear, which set an unprecedented course for disruption, as these traps caught everything with no regard for species. In 1894, 52 Lummi fishermen signed a letter begging the government to regulate the traps. Their pleas were ignored.
Finally, in 1934, fish traps were outlawed in the name of conservation, as were Lummi-operated reef nets, while non-Native fisherman were allowed to continue to reef net fish. Reid says it could’ve been because only citizens were allowed to hold a license and Native people weren’t seen as citizens. Additionally, laws were passed that specifically made Indigenous technologies and techniques illegal.
“They were shut out at every level possible,” Reid says.
But the tide slowly turned. Landmark cases in the 1940s and ‘50s ruled that tribal members could no longer be charged fees for fishing in their “usual and accustomed grounds” and affirmed their right to do so.
Then, in 1974, Judge George Boldt handed down a decision in the landmark court case United States v. Washington, which is still disputed today by those affected. Boldt reviewed the Point Elliot Treaty and determined that area tribes held original rights to the fish — which they granted in limited fashion to settlers. He also ruled that there should be equal sharing of fish as a resource between tribes that signed the treaty and settlers. Tribes were entitled to up to 50% of the fish harvest that “passed through their recognized fishing grounds.” Tribal members could also lay claim to fish bred in hatcheries as long as they “played a role in the breeding process.” Finally, for the first time, non-Native people would be limited in catch numbers by the state when needed in the name of conservation.
But the damage to reef netters was done.
Olsen, the former Lummi tribal chairman, was 13 when the Boldt decision came down, and his grandfather, Herman Olsen, was deposed in the case. Herman started reef netting on Henry Island at age 12, later moving to Lummi Island. He worked for other fishermen and then had his own reef net gear for two years before selling the gear in 1940 because he was “squeezed out.”
According to Herman Olsen, not only had nontribal fishermen edged their way into traditional Lummi fishing grounds, the space between reef nets was whittled from 1,200 feet to 800 feet, to the point where there wasn’t enough room to catch anything substantial. And while Herman Olsen worked on other reef net gear and did other kinds of fishing over the rest of his commercial fishing career, he never again owned his own reef netting gear or license.
Troy Olsen, now 62, wasn’t aware of his grandfather’s testimony until after Herman’s death.
“It made me emotional to read the loss he experienced,” Olsen says.
Bringing it back
AskOlsenwhytheLummi have not returned to reef netting, and he speaks of heartache.
The Lummi were not allowed to reef net during his father’s generation, and there was a long time during which the practice wasn’t spoken of, Olsen says.
“Even though we have the right to fish in our usual and accustomed manner, we are so removed from the accustomed places,” Olsen says. “It’s an awful thing to go out there and be a visitor of our aboriginal homeland; it has a lot of emotional trauma and stress and loss.”
Afterward, Lummi fisherman turned to seining, or gillnetting. But Dana Wilson, a fisherman and member of the Lummi Fish Commission, says he believes the Lummi will find their way back to reef netting in time.
“It’s been away from us for 150 years. It’s going to take a while to get it all back,” Wilson says. “It’s taken a long time to move us from our traditional territory and it’s going to take some time to move back into those areas of reef net sites. It’s always going to be a goal to have more reef nets.”
Tribal elders have begun conversations about reef netting again and Olsen and Wilson believe the next generation of Lummi will return to it. Olsen partners with the Saanich in British Columbia to teach tribal members to fish, and speaks often on panels about reef netting. He was also part of the group of Lummi elders including Larry Kinley who, in 2014, built the traditional wooden canoes.
“Eventually, when it’s time to wake that spirit up again and do reef netting in a good way, I think the Lummi tribe will do it when we’re afforded an opportunity that has lasting, meaningful dialogue or purpose,” Olsen says.
The 2023 fishing season might hasten reef netting’s return because pink salmon will be running. Pinks are small compared with other salmon types and usually run every other year, but historically, it’s a big run and good for reef nets. Kinley says her family plans to set up their reef net gear this year.
“With Ellie doing it, that’s the first step. The ball is rolling now in the right direction,” Wilson says.
The Kinleys last set up their reef net gear during the pink run in 2021. That memory of reef netting on opening day with her two sons still resonates with Ellie Kinley.
“My kids were standing chest-deep flinging fish into the skiff, and it was just the three of us running it,” Kinley says. “It was fulfilling for us because we were fulfilling something that their dad wanted to happen.”
The next generation of Lummi got to reef net again, even if just for a season. Perhaps they’ll do so again this year, with the Kinleys leading the way.
Dazed and confused.............the fog is closing in