Reviving the tradition of reef net fishing

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Submitted by the Lopez Historical Society and Museum.

The modern history of reef net fishing in the San Juan Islands and current efforts to revive the ancient tradition by members of the Lummi and Saanich Tribes will be explored in a presentation on May 14 at 7:30 p.m. sponsored by the Lopez Island Historical Society. The evening event will take place at the Lopez Community Center.

The roundtable will feature Jack Giard, longtime captain of the Lopez Island Reef Nets and member of the Pacific Salmon Commission, and Troy Olsen, co-founder of Whiteswan Environmental and Lummi fisherman who worked to reintroduce the reef net fishing at Lummi and Saanich. tribes. The discussion will be moderated by the museum’s director, Amy Frost.

Reef net salmon fishing is unique to the Straits Salish peoples, Frost said, and dates back more than a thousand years. An ongoing exhibit at the Museum, “Sx’wálech to Lopez: Impacts of Colonialism on the Straits Salish,” includes some of the history and cultural significance of reef net fishing to the Straits Salish people, who saw the practice not only as a source of food and trade goods, but also as central to their spiritual practices and beliefs.

Prior to the lecture, Troy Olsen highlighted the origin story of the Lummi in which the Creator provided the aboriginal saltwater peoples with salmon and reef nets as well as sun, fire and spears. But Olsen said the tribes had to fight a “long historic battle” for their treaty rights. In the early decades of the 1900s, he said, tribal fishermen, including his grandfather, saw their reef nets cut and had to deal with cannery operators who refused to buy salmon. fished by the Indians.

Today, he said, the revival of reef net fishing is an important part of the tribes’ efforts to help their members reconnect with their traditional practices and ways of life.

“I want our people to know what it’s like to catch wild salmon in pristine condition. It’s a beautiful thing,” Olsen said. “I want future generations to have the opportunity to get their hands on a reef net.”

Lopez resident Jack Giard was just 18 when he started reef netting. Now 82, he remembers when he and his partners worked on five operations around Lopez, including Fisherman Bay, Iceberg and Davis Bay. But he said the number of reef netting gear in Puget Sound has fallen from a peak of 125 in 1949 to just 11 state-licensed operations today.

Giard said the advent of purse seiners and gillnets, which are more mobile than fixed and anchored reef nets, but also more expensive, caused many fishermen to abandon the old method. Additionally, he said, ongoing international negotiations with Canada have resulted in a dramatic decline in allowable salmon catches, which have fallen from 50% to 16.5% today. He said two-thirds of that now goes to tribes whose treaty rights to salmon harvests have been repeatedly upheld in court.

Indeed, Giard said, the growing influence of tribes may be what is saving the Salish Sea fishery. “The political influence of the tribes is one of our greatest hopes for preserving our salmon fishing industry.”

Reef netting operations remain an iconic part of Lopez Island’s history. The remains of reef netting gear are a prominent feature at the mouth of Fisherman Bay where decaying boats with long ladders for spotting fish can be seen on the beach at Fisherman Bay Spit Preserve.

The suggested donation for Living Tradition: Reef Netting in the San Juan Islands is $10.

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