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Reefnet Salmon Fishing Method of the Northern Puget Sound

Reefnet Salmon Fishing Method of the Northern Puget SoundWild Pacific Salmon reefnet fishing is a historical Pacific Northwest salmon fishing method. It has been practiced for centuries by the Native American tribes of the Puget Sound and farther north along Vancouver Island. Native peoples used cedar canoes and cedar nets to catch wild Sockeye and other wild Pacific salmon. Today, though the boats are bigger and winches are now used to pull in nylon nets, the fishing method practiced by the Lummi Island Wild Coop of fisherman off of Washington State has remained fundamentally unchanged.

Fisherman still stand on towers, waiting to spot a school of Sockeye, Chinook, Pink, Coho or Chum salmon swimming along the reef and over the small net suspended between two boats. This process is incredibly selective, as spotters can identify the exact type of fish swimming below. When a school of salmon is observed, the net is quickly pulled up and the fish are gently spilled into a netted live well to relax after a brief struggle. This process is not only humane but allows for the dissipation of bitter lactic acid built up in the salmon flesh, which results in a sweeter flavor.

Reefnet Salmon Fishing Method of the Northern Puget SoundThe fish are then sorted and any unwanted species that may have been caught (called “by-catch”) are harmlessly diverted back into the water. The remaining salmon are bled by cutting a gill and placing them in another live well to swim until dead. This fishing method not only treats the salmon with the utmost reverence and respect but also the other fish caught inadvertently.

Reefnetting can only be done in a flood tide, because the boats (called “gear”) are set up to face the flood current when salmon are moving northward toward the Fraser River. By utilizing this flood tide, the fishery can use stationary gear and wait for the tide to bring the harvests instead of chasing the salmon. The days and times of day that fishing occurs are determined by a combination of nature and fisheries management with the State and tribal interest. The amount of fish taken each year is a natural percentage of the ebbs and flows in annual returns to the Fraser River. The catch season typically extends from mid July to mid October.

This method is extremely fuel-efficient. The gear is set up once a year and anchored so there is no wasted fuel from boats moving around to find fish. Instead of chasing salmon all over the sea in a boat, reefnetters, over time, have identified the exact locations where salmon swim on their way home to the Fraser River and rely on the current, the season, and their keen eyes and swift responses to catch salmon. Lummi Island Wild has gone even one step farther in making their operation energy efficient: one of their gear sets has been converted to solar to power the batteries that run the winches.

Reefnet Salmon Fishing Method of the Northern Puget SoundIn addition to being more sustainable, reefnet fishing consistently yields a higher quality product than conventional fishing. Wild salmon caught with the reefnet method are described as buttery, and fresh tasting with a complete absence of fishiness.

At its peak, Lummi Island supported seventy sets of reefnet fishing gear. Today, there are only eleven sets in operation—eight at Lummi Island and three in the San Juan Islands. This traditional, sustainable fishing method needs to be taught and supported so that it can continue into the future.

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