Saturday, February 7, 2015


Reefnet Boats on Monastery Land- Ned Griffin

For over 30 years our local fisherman on Shaw stored their reef net boats on our beach- what I call "saluvial muck" (bay mud). It takes seconds at low tide to sink to your thighs. A few years ago we- having had approval dismantled the decaying boats so we could reclaim the site for our own use, especially bird watching with the local children.

Reefnetting could be the oldest form of net fishing in the world and is unique to the Pacific Northwest. In the San Juans, this ancient art was the primary salmon harvesting method for local tribes.The techniques employed date back hundreds, perhaps thousands of years. Even today, most modern reefnets sit on traditional sites that have been "farmed" for the fish for hundreds of years.

Four local tribes that we know of worked reefnets in their territories including the Lummi on Shaw and northwest Lopez. Summer villages were established near the sites to support the fishers, and a great deal of ritual and ceremony accompanied the start of each season's fishing. As far as is known the natives never had permanent dwelling on Shaw Island.

The technique is basically simple with a pair of boats facing each other with nets suspended between them. It would take the fishermen several weeks to get their boats ready and into place, having no propulsion of their own they had to be towed in place.

(Amie Hood- Photo)
Standing on spotting ladders 16 feet up, they see the salmon headed for their reef net and the race is on. The fishermen have about 10 seconds to gather the fish before they get away.

The nets would be pulled up by manual winches catching the fish, which were then hauled into the boats. Fishing with the reefnets was  grueling work. The season ran four or five months as different salmon runs came through the islands, and openings often lasted five or six days a week. Keeping the gear clear of kelp, working the big winches, and rolling the fish into the boats was exhausting, but it was a good living for many islanders.

Ed Hopkins & Crew (Ed & Kathy Hopkins photo)
Fishing the reefnets required particular conditions, including daylight, calm water, and reasonable clear weather, since darkness, surface chop or heavy overcast made it impossible to see the salmon enter the net. Since all reefnets fish only on a given tide, they were manned only when the currents ran the proper direction. Different gears were also fished during different salmon runs. One set might work well for Chinook, but not for sockeye. Another might be particularly effective only on cohos, pinks, or chums.

This type of fishing is environmentally sound  as the catch arrives alive, not smushed as in a purse seine, or ripped and bleeding from a gill net. As the years went by the Natives were given more days to fish then the local men, so about 12 years ago they called a halt to the fishing. We missed this as the "rent" for using our beach was salmon from the catch. We lived on that salmon through the year.

By 2011 there were only 11 non-Indian commercial reef-fishing licenses left in the Washington state, with fishermen working off Lummi, Lopez, Shaw and Stuart islands.

Boat Demolition- Debra Maden, Orcas Is.

Abandoned Boat- A. Hood

Recently some Shaw men have "resurrected" this ancient art of fishing and once again park their boats on our land.  Maybe salmon coming?


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