reefnet salmon fishing boats off lummi island, washington
Edmund Lowe Photography/Moment/Getty Images
Edmund Lowe Photography/Moment/Getty Images

On Lummi Island, Indigenous Reefnet Fishing Thrives in the Face of Extinction

In ‘Endangered Eating,’ culinary historian Sarah Lohman rides along as reefnetter Riley Starks fights to keep the sustainable salmon fishing practice alive.

In Endangered Eating, culinary historian Sarah Lohman sets her sights on Slow Food International’s Ark of Taste, a catalog of ingredients in danger of extinction and worthy of being preserved. One of the chapters, however, is not focused on a food item, but on a tradition: the Indigenous practice of reefnet fishing, or sxwo’le, that’s unique to Lummi Island, a 9.25-square-mile landmass off the coast of Washington State’s Lummi Indian Reservation. The technique, originally invented by the Straits Salish People, was banned by the Canadian government in the early 1900s, but has since been reintroduced by proponents like Riley Starks, a local reefnetter and executive director of the Salish Center for Sustainable Fishing Methods. In this excerpt, Lohman joins Starks as he hauls nets of pink salmon out of the Salish Sea.

The morning was cool but sunny when I climbed into Riley’s gray Kia Soul. Riley was all business, the excitement of the imminent start of the fishing season apparent in his bubbling energy. He is in his seventies but moves his lean frame with youthful strength and energy. As we drove down the forested lane toward the Salish Sea, I asked him what had brought him to Lummi Island and made him a passionate advocate for reefnet fishing.

“Reefnetting was the culture of this island,” he said. When Riley arrived on Lummi Island in 1992, he wanted to be a part of it.

Riley graduated from Western Washington University in Bellingham in 1969. He was twenty-three, and all he had ever cared about was getting straight A’s. He got into law school at the University of Oregon, but had six months to kill before the program started. A friend of his had bought a fishing boat; Riley needed to earn some money and his friend needed a deckhand. The experience ended up being an epiphany. “Oh God, I have to do this,” Riley thought. So he dropped out of law school, sold everything he owned, and bought a boat.

We had been following a road around the edge of the island, the Salish Sea to our right. When we rounded a bend, I could see for the first time the reefnet gears lined up in the bay. When Riley first bought his reefnet gear, there were at least fifty licensed gears in the waters of the Salish Sea. Now there were twelve. I saw seven pairs of floating platforms stretching out to sea in a C shape, with two more gear pairs further north, closer to the mouth of the Fraser River. That river mouth was where the salmon were headed, coming in from the open sea to breed. The Fraser is the longest river in British Columbia, and one of the most important and prolific salmon spawning locations in the world. The reefnet gears were located in the path of schooling salmon. A strong tide moves like a river through the bay, propelling the fish along their journey and hopefully into the fishers’ nets.

We pulled onto property owned by the Salish Center for Sustainable Fishing Methods, the not-for-profit Riley founded to advocate for reefnet-caught fish and other sustainable fishing in the Salish Sea.

One of Riley’s crew, Olivia—in her early twenties, tall and blonde—arrived in the skiff. I jumped in first and Riley pushed the skiff off the shore, jumping in after. His gear was in the seventh space, furthest out from shore, so we passed the gears of other fishers on our way. Reefnet gears are made of two floating platforms each about 40 feet long, with a 55-foot-wide net strung between them. Each pair of floating platforms had up to four crow’s nests on either end of the platforms. I could see people standing in these crow’s nests, 20 feet in the air, silhouetted against the morning sun, their eyes glued to the clear water below as they looked for the schools of salmon.

“Sometimes they’re clear as day, sometimes just a color change in the water, or a feeling,” Riley told me about spotting the fish. As the captain of the gear, he would be in the crow’s nest when it came time.

The spotters in the crow’s nests were assisted by another crew member in a small cabin below, keeping an eye on monitors with video from four underwater cameras. When the gears are active, you periodically hear a shout, and the spotters in the crow’s nest pull a lever or grab a cord to engage solar-powered winches that lift the net spanning between the two platforms out of the water. Fishing days are punctuated by the sound of these winches, a rattle like a roller coaster being dragged up its first hill. Then the deck crew spring to life, some manning another winch to position the net, some dragging in the net manually, and finally haul the net—containing several hundred pounds of fish—onto the deck by hand. The flopping fish tumble into a live well, a rectangular metal mesh cage set into a hole in the deck where seawater flows through it. The salmon swim in the live well and calm down, which allows the lactic acid in their muscles to disperse and results in a better-tasting fish.

In this live well, the catch is sorted, and any “non-targeted” species are released, with less than .5 percent mortality. This by-catch often includes protected species of salmon, because multiple salmon species commonly school together. Protected species are salmon whose populations are dangerously low, such as chinook salmon, another Ark of Taste entry. The gentle handling of reefnet fishing means the non- targeted fish are returned to the water healthy, ready to continue their journey to spawn. The targeted fish are bled by hand before being iced and sent to the Lummi Island Wild processing facility in Bellingham.

No other commercial fishing process is this selective, or this gentle, on the fish. The fish aren’t damaged; they have all their scales when they come to market, and the flesh isn’t bruised. And when they are caught in salt water, their meat is fatty and firm, characteristics which change once the fish hit freshwater rivers. Additionally, because the gears are stationary (and otherwise solar-powered), the whole process uses very little fossil fuel.

Riley had a hired crew of three college students from his alma mater: Olivia, Natalie, and Ben. They were majoring in fishing and wanted to do this work for a living. Even though they were “green,” meaning this was their first year on the water, Riley felt confident in their ability.

We pulled up to one of the platforms and the rest of the crew greeted us. Ben—tall, skinny, and generally the quiet type—jumped aboard the skiff with Riley, and then left to go fuss with the long ropes that extended “upstream,” the direction the tide and the salmon would be coming from. The long ropes were the visible element of the most critical and ingenious element of the reefnet: the reef.

The reef is a web of rope which guides salmon both up from the ocean floor and in toward the net, like a funnel. The reef starts with two 200-foot rope lines that extend upstream from the platforms; the lines float with the help of buoys. The ends of these lines are about 80 feet apart at the upstream end, and narrow to the width of the net between the two floating platforms. Ropes are tied at intervals horizontally between these two main lines. At the upstream end, these horizontal ropes are anchored 80 feet below the surface of the water, nearly at the bay’s floor. Gradually, the ropes slope upward until their depth matches the opening of the net strung between the platforms.

Onto these horizontal ropes are tied blue or green plastic ribbons that shimmy in the tide and look like underwater plants. The ribbons trick the salmon into thinking that they are swimming safely on the ocean floor up a shoal, a natural shallowing of the bay.

“And so the fish swim up from 80 feet and they think that they’re in their little ecosystem with grass,” Natalie explained. Charged with giving me a tour of the gear, she was slight, with brown hair in a low ponytail, young, and incredibly knowledgeable. She tromped around deck in shorts and galoshes. “And then they’re slowly brought up to 20 feet and then right into the net.”

Salmon schooling in the sound move fast, pushed along by the tide four knots or faster. As they come into the funnel of the reef, they’re moving too fast to notice that they’re swimming away from the true bottom of the sound. Even if they did, with the tide pushing them forward it’s difficult for them to turn around. Suddenly, they’re in the net.

The spotter sees the salmon entering the reef, or perhaps it’s the crew member watching the camera feed that sees them swim past. The cue is given—traditionally “Give ’em hell!” but Riley often shouted, “We’ve got fish!” The nets are pulled up, the fish hauled on deck.

As Natalie pointed out to the reef, a salmon leapt out of the water near the reef’s opening in the bay. “Oh, there went one!” I squealed.

“A jumper? Nice.” Jumpers mean that a big school of fish is just below the surface.

When Riley returned from adjusting the reef, a fisher from another gear came by on a skiff, asking if we’d seen any schools of salmon yet. Riley paused his work to chat with him.

“That’s one of the things about this fishery. It’s convivial,” Riley said to me later, as we climbed back into the skiff. The equipment had been checked, fixed, and set. We were ready to fish. “There’s not another fishery like this. People come back and forth, they bring their whole families, everybody’s on the boat.” Since the gears are stationary, there’s no missing the boat, so to speak.

“And there’s no competition,” I observed.

“Noooo, there’s no competition,” Riley affirmed. “That’s the thing. You’re happy whenever someone catches fish. Whereas in all the other fisheries that I’ve ever fished, you lie about everything, never tell where you get the fish, how much you catch. There’s nothing to hide here. You can’t do anything about it. You can only do a good job where you are.”

“And think,” Natalie added, “there used to be rows and rows and rows of these all up and down the Salish Strait. All the way up to Canada, all the way down to Puget Sound.”

Riley smiled warmly at his young crew as we pushed off from the gear. “These guys have never fished, but they are just terrific,” he declared. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a better crew.” Natalie, Ben, and Olivia beamed.

“Really, I think we’re ready. I think it’s going to be a good season.” Riley looked out at the sound, then turned the skiff to shore.

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Sarah Lohman is the author of Endangered Eating: America's Vanishing Foods and Eight Flavors: The Untold Story of American Cuisine. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. Formerly the Curator of Food Programming at the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, she currently works with institutions around the country to create public programs focused on food. She lives in Las Vegas.