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Last of the reef netters: An Indigenous, sustainable salmon fishery

Roger and Matt store the days catch after a day of reefnet fishing in Legoe Bay, off the shore of Lummi Island Washington.

Roger and Matt store the days catch after a day of reefnet fishing in Legoe Bay, off the shore of Lummi Island Washington. Photo courtesy of Rachel Showalter.

  • Reef net fishing is an ancient, sustainable salmon-harvesting technique created and perfected by the Lummi and other Coast Salish Indigenous people over a millennium.
  • Rather than chasing the fish, this technique uses ropes to create an artificial reef that channels fish toward a net stretched between two anchored boats. Fishers observe the water and pull in the net at the right moment, intercepting salmon as they migrate from the Pacific Ocean to the Fraser River near present-day Washington state and British Columbia.
  • Colonialism, government policies, habitat destruction, and declining salmon populations have separated tribes from this tradition. Today, only 12 reef net permits exist, with just one belonging to the Lummi Nation.
  • Many tribal members hope to revive reef net fishing to restore their cultural identity and a sustainable salmon harvest but face difficulties balancing economic realities with preserving what the Lummi consider a sacred heritage.

WHATCOM COUNTY, Washington — “Some mornings, the sun’s hitting that reef net just right and it’s like I know it’s talking to me,” said Ellie Kinley, a member of the Lummi (Lhaq’temish) Nation and the last Indigenous permit holder of an ancient salmon-fishing practice. Her reef net rig, parked on the shore of Lummi Nation, serves as a reminder of a once-thriving Indigenous fishing tradition that, for now, sits idle. “It’s saying, ‘I’m sitting here. Don’t forget about me.'”

For centuries, Indigenous people of the Salish Sea relied on reef netting as a sustainable salmon-fishing technique. However, colonialism has left the tribes disconnected from a practice that once defined their cultural identity. Now, many find themselves balancing day-to-day economic realities with an ardent desire to revive reef net fishing and restore this vital link to what they say is their sacred heritage.

Reef net fishing intercepts chinook (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), coho (O. kisutch), sockeye (O. nerka), chum (O. keta) and pink (O. gorbuscha) salmon as they travel from the Pacific Ocean to spawn in Fraser River near present-day Washington state and British Columbia.

Rather than chasing the fish, this technique relies on a net stretched between two anchored boats. Long lines of rope run from the boats, creating an artificial reef that corrals the fish into the net (hence the name reef net). Once the salmon reach the net, the lookouts sound the alarm, and the crew quickly pulls the catch into the boat. Traditionally, the Lummi built these rigs from cedarwood and fiber ropes and anchored the rigs along the salmons’ path using large boulders.

Ellie Kinley
Ellie Kinley, a member of the Lummi (Lhaq’temish) Nation and the last Indigenous permit holder of an ancient salmon-fishing practice, reefnetting. Image courtesy of Rachel Showalter/The Bellingham Herald.

On the reef net rig, any nontarget fish are tossed back into the water, resulting in almost no bycatch. In the old ways, the net had a circular opening built in to allow some salmon to pass through and continue their genetic line.

This ultra-selective and small-batch harvesting method has been described as the most sustainable commercial salmon fishing practice. But for the Native people of the Salish Sea, a diverse group of independent Nations with territories on both sides of the U.S.-Canadian border who created and perfected reef netting, the practice was more than a way to make money or even to put food on the table. For millennia, the reef net played a central role in their spirituality and community structure.

The reef netting technique

The Lummi people passed reef net sites from generation to generation. “It was a private property right, not written down but passed like your bloodline,” Steve Solomon, a lifelong Lummi fisherman and traditional knowledge holder of the reef net practice, told Mongabay. Many of the Lummi place names are tied to reef net sites, and “everyone in the village played some role in the harvest or preparation of salmon. Even the children and elders participated by praying in the salmon ceremonies,” Solomon said.

“As a knowledge system, the Reef Net in many ways defined our existence and relationship to our homelands, and to one another as a people, and as a nation,” Nicholas XEMŦOLTW̱ Claxton, a member of the W̱SÁNEĆ First Nation who neighbors the Lummi to the north, in modern-day Canada, wrote in his doctoral dissertation on reef netting.

However, centuries of colonialism and fishing laws enacted by the U.S. and Canadian governments separated Native people from the reef nets. Now, just 12 permits exist, and only one belongs to a member of the Lummi Nation. Ellie Kinley inherited that permit from her late husband, the highly respected Lummi elder and fisherman Larry Kinley. This year, Ellie and her sons didn’t set the reef nets, saying it didn’t make sense financially.

Lummi fishing with a reef net in the 1930s.
Lummi fishing with a reef net in the 1930s. Image courtesy of University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Eugene H. Field, photographer, SOC1171.
The Kinley family’s reef net rig sits on the shore of the Lummi Stommish Grounds.
The Kinley family’s reef net rig sits on the shore of the Lummi Stommish Grounds. Image courtesy of Ellie Kinley.

In 2023, just eight of the 12 permitted reef net rigs anchored in the Salish Sea, none operated by Indigenous folks. One of these is owned and run by Riley Starks, director of the Salish Center for Sustainable Fishing Methods, who has worked on reef nets in Legoe Bay off the shore of Lummi Island since 1991.

When Mongabay visited Starks’s rig in mid-September, the crew (none of whom were Indigenous) was motley, composed of a couple of software engineers, a former puppeteer turned ferryman and a farmer. Some said they worked other jobs to support their fishing habit.

The reef net is a peaceful operation, quiet enough to hear the cows mooing from the shore — until the salmon come. The modern reef net rigs use underwater cameras, sonar, and lookout towers to spot the fish. Once spotted, the rig uses solar-powered winches to lift the net, guided and assisted by the crew. Fish are quickly funneled into a holding pen alongside the boat, leaving them alive and immersed in seawater. The crew throws back any unintended catch to swim another day.

Once it’s time to end the day’s fishing, a crewmember holds each live fish and rips one of its gills before placing it back in the holding pen. The fish bleed out while swimming in the saltwater. The resulting fillets are pristine and command a premium price at market due to this handling and the high-fat content of the fish coming back from the cold ocean. But this year’s poor salmon runs show that salmon fishing can be an uncertain business.

“This year, Fraser River-origin sockeye and chum salmon came in quite poor and below the historical average,” Mickey Agha, statewide salmon science and policy analyst at the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, told Mongabay. Pink salmon returned “well above expectations,” but the price was too low to make commercial fishing sustainable. Like corn, wheat and oil, salmon is considered a commodity. Prices fluctuate with the market, and this year, prices bottomed out.

In a good year, reef nets can catch hundreds of salmon a day. One day this year, Starks’s crew caught only 30 fish, the next only 12, all pinks. Within a few weeks, they shut the operation down.

Lummi Island Wild, the largest commercial reef-netting operation, didn’t set its rigs this year.

A model of the old-style Lummi reef nets
A model of the old-style Lummi reef nets created by Lummi member Troy Olson. The historical Lummi reef net had a circular opening built in to allow some salmon to pass through and continue their genetic line. Image by Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.
Illustration of Lummi traditional reef net by Richard Perenyi.
Illustration of Lummi traditional reef net by Richard Perenyi.

Lifelong fisherman Steve Thatcher’s rig scooped up just over 4,000 fish in 11 days. “It’s a terrible year,” he said, noting that some years they’ve brought in more than 20,000 salmon over just a few weeks. Still, Thatcher said, he goes out because he loves the reef net.

“Current reef netters hold this practice very dear. Some of these guys are third-generation reef netters,” Thatcher said. “The fleet is how it is today because of people who have fought for it at the political level and cared enough about it to be sure managers knew and understood how it worked.”

Preserving reef netting for all

Both Native and non-Native fishers Mongabay spoke with said there’s room for both to practice reef netting. “It’s not a competition,” Kinley said.

“In my mind, we are keeping the practice going until the Lummi are able to join,” Starks, of the Salish Center for Sustainable Fishing Methods, said.

More time in the water could make the reef nets commercially viable, but in response to salmon declines, “commercial fisheries have been reduced in recent years to allow as many fish as possible to reach the spawning grounds and to meet escapement targets,” Agha said — and this includes reef nets.

Nowadays, when there are enough fish for the reef net to be in the water, Kinley said she and her two sons need to be out purse seining instead. This fishing method follows the fish and uses a large net to scoop up everything it surrounds. This method tends to be more profitable but isn’t as selective.

“The big boat’s the only chance we have to make money,” Kinley said. “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.”

Solomon said the separation of the Lummi from the reef-netting practice began with white settler colonialism and has a complex history. The 1855 Point Elliott Treaty brought a big change to the fishing landscape when it formalized fishing rights. The treaty didn’t “give” rights to the tribes, Solomon said, but rather formalized the rights they already had. It also extended rights to non-Natives, who, in turn, began to encroach on Native traditional fishing grounds.

In the 1890s, the Alaska Packers company put fish traps in the path of Lummi reef nets, intercepting nearly all incoming fish and depriving the Lummi of their catch. During this mass trapping era, many Lummi reef-netting sites were destroyed by competitors, including those at Village Point on Lummi Island.

In 1897, a new law designated areas where only commercial fish traps could operate, stating that other “fixed appliances,” including reef nets, were not allowed to fish there. The law effectively displaced Lummi fishers from their traditional reef net sites.

“The state enforcement arm looked at all Indians as fishing criminals,” Solomon said. In response to violence and competition from trappers and fishing boats, Lummi communities adopted different techniques, he said, such as purse seining and gillnetting, which they continue to this day.

Willie Lane, a Lummi fisherman, barbecues salmon at the Bellingham SeaFeast Festival.Matt Keiper and Roger Kubalek pull the net aboardSalmon swim in a holding tank aboard Riley Stark’s reefnet rig in Legoe Bay.Modern reefnet rigs in Legoe BayParasitic sea lice attached to a pink salmonA flounder accidently scooped up in the reefnet is quickly thrown back to sea.

Fish trappers continued to overharvest for decades until, in the name of conservation, Washington state officially outlawed all fish traps in 1934, including reef nets. A few years later, non-Natives petitioned for an exemption to allow reef netting, which was granted. However, by this time, the Lummi had been forced out of their traditional sites, and non-Native fishers had moved in.

Although the landmark Boldt Decision in 1974 affirmed the Lummi’s treaty rights to half the salmon catch, the ruling came after habitat loss, overfishing, and pollution had already damaged salmon populations, and fishing laws had separated the tribes from the reef net.

“Fifty percent of nothing is nothing,” Solomon said.

The future of reef net fishing

In the U.S. Pacific Northwest, 28 populations of salmon and steelhead are listed under the Endangered Species Act. In BC, around half the Pacific salmon populations are in decline.

The biggest threat to Fraser River-origin salmon today, Agha said, is a rapidly warming marine climate, which causes a lack of food resources and reduced survival. Additionally, droughts in the salmon’s freshwater habitat have reduced river flows to historic lows, causing mass die-offs in spawning grounds or preventing salmon from reaching their spawning grounds to lay eggs.

Some research indicates that salmon farming has also played a role in salmon declines by transmitting sea lice and viral loads to wild salmon, including juveniles as they exit from the mouth of the Fraser River into the ocean. In February, Fisheries and Oceans Canadian Coast Guard announced their decision not to renew licenses for 15 open-net pen Atlantic salmon farm sites in the Discovery Islands, stating that “many First Nations along the Fraser River were not able to access wild salmon needed to sustain their FSC [food social, and ceremonial] needs.”

But the salmon still stand a chance. “Researchers have identified that strategic habitat protection and restoration are critical factors to Fraser River-origin salmon recovery,” Agha said. Salmon need shade from vegetation along the streams and creeks where they come to spawn and where the young hatch and develop for months before heading back to sea.

Some of this restoration work is underway. The Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA), an NGO in Whatcom County, Washington, for example, plants vegetation to enhance river, creek, and riparian habitat to reverse the trend of declining salmon runs.

For the Lummi Nation, who call themselves “salmon people,” the salmon decline has cut to the core of their cultural identity, Solomon said. “Without fishing, something is missing from our way of life.”

Some suggest subsidizing Indigenous participation in reef netting until the practice can support itself. In Italy, for example, the traditional Trabucco fisheries in the Adriatic Sea are subsidized by the government for their cultural and historical value and because they draw tourism and still provide some income.

“We don’t need to reinvent the wheel,” Solomon said. “The federal government already has farm and agriculture services … They just need to open those doors up to fishing, and reef netting should be on top of that list.”

“In the fishing industry, we all know how much the farmers are subsidized. And we’re left to starve some years,” Kinley said. “The only reason we’re starving is because of government decisions.”

As for the reef net, unpredictable and dwindling numbers of salmon, limits on fishing days, and a lack of workers make it an unreliable livelihood. And for some of the Lummi, sheer survival often forces the focus away from preserving cultural practices.

A crew member rips the salmon’s gill before placing it back in the holding pen. The fish will bleed out while swimming in the saltwater, resulting in pristine fillets.
A crew member rips the salmon’s gill before placing it back in the holding pen. The fish will bleed out while swimming in the saltwater, resulting in pristine fillets. Image courtesy of Rachel Showalter/The Bellingham Herald.
Lummi salmon BBQ at the Bellingham SeaFeast
Lummi salmon BBQ at the Bellingham SeaFeast, a festival in Bellingham, Washington, that celebrates local fisheries and cuisine. Image by Liz Kimbrough for Mongabay.

Steve Solomon and his son, Troy Olson, another lifelong Lummi fisherman, said reviving reef net fishing is essential to restoring their cultural identity, the path toward cultural resurgence, and a way to sustainable salmon harvest. They hope to one day reestablish reef net fleets across their ancestral waters and teach new generations this sacred way of harvesting salmon.

This was also Larry Kinley’s vision. “His dream was to use it as a teaching platform, because it’s safe,” Ellie said. “He had really hoped that the Northwest Indian College would take it over … because there are generations who don’t know fishing at all, which makes me so sad. But everyone who goes out on the reef net falls in love with it. So we need to get them out there … It’s their home and their heritage.”

For many in the Lummi Nation, reviving reef net fishing remains the vision, but the path there is still unclear. Until then, Kinley said she looks out at the rig in the mornings. “I know you’re there,” she said. “And I know I’ve got to continue that work. But for right now, I’ve got to make a living.”


Banner image: Matt Keiper and Roger Kubalek store the day’s catch after a day of reef net fishing in Legoe Bay, off the shore of Lummi Island, Washington. Image courtesy of Rachel Showalter/The Bellingham Herald.

The production of this article and accompanying photographs are the result of a collaboration between environment and science news platform Mongabay and McClatchy News.

Liz Kimbrough is a staff writer for Mongabay and holds a Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Tulane University, where she studied the microbiomes of trees. View more of her reporting here.

Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of Indigenous communities’ long relationship with — and stewardship of — marine environments through the lens of aquaculture, from British Columbia to New Zealand, listen here:

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