Yesterday I spoke at the 9th Annual Conference of Association of Professional Biology in Victoria. The theme of the conference is “Look back to build the future.” As a result of their invitation I began learning about Straits Salish reef net fishing and I was proud to share with them what I have learned so far. Happy reading!
The Straits Salish caught sockeye with reef nets. Designed and refined over countless generations, reef nets were the reason my people, the WSANEC, were wealthy, powerful and feared.
The reef net is complex in its construction yet stunningly simple in use. It is more than just finely crafted web of rope of cedar and willow, more than an enormous net carefully strung between two large canoes; the reef net represents an entire worldview.
The canoes are anchored parallel to each other, a few hundred feet apart in a calm relatively shallow bay or inlet. Each canoe has a line lead with floats running to a head bouy and anchor several hundred feet off the bow.
Dozens of vertical side lines and as many horizontal lines formed walls and an artificial seabed that gently inclined from the ocean floor into the net. Dune grass was attached to the horizontal lines to enhance the appearance of the false seabed, increasing effectiveness of the gear.
The crew was made up of three to four men in each canoe. The crew chief was perched above the water in a raised seat; his team consisted mainly of members of his family.
The nets are set according to the direction of the tide. Salmon swimming in the direction of the tidal current were caught in the large scoop and trapped in the net.
Once the fishing gear was set the crew would wait. The crew chief perched above watched for the sockeye to calmly and unsuspectingly swim into his net. When he saw the bubbles created by the school he called for his crew to release the anchors and the canoes would close behind the sockeye catching them.
This is when the hard work began. The crew would immediately begin to pull the net and the fish into the canoes. Once full, they brought their bounty to shore to be processed straightaway by the remaining family members who were not part of the fishing crew.
Let’s be clear. Reef nets were a successful fishing technique; the design and method of fishing were a consciously developed. The Straits Salish did not use a purse-seiner, trawler or gillnetter. The Straits Salish did not drag everything up from the bottom of the ocean, killing everything in sight.
Instead we established systems that mimicked nature. Fishing successfully with a reef net required discipline and an acute awareness of the natural cycles of fish and tides.
Reef netting needed to be a highly organized way of life. Fishing locations were known as SWALET, they were owned by the crew chief, as was the net and anchors, each were a birthright handed down from one generation to another.
There were hundreds of fishing locations across the Southern Gulf Islands and on either side of the Salish Sea. For the Fraser River sockeye to make it home they to had run a gauntlet of highly trained, extremely focused reef netters.
The reef net season for the WSANEC would start on the Saanich Peninsula in our winter village. When spring began turning to summer we pulled the roof planks off of our winter longhouses and strapped them between the large dug out canoes to make a sturdy and seaworthy catamaran trimmed with a large sail.
Using our intimate knowledge of wind and tides we would leave from our winter village and expertly navigate to our summer fishing sites. Once there we would use the large wooden planks from our winter homes to cover our summer shelters.
The reef net site had to be more than just a good place to catch sockeye. The other two requirements of a good site were fresh water and a consistent, reliable food supply of deer and berries.
Reef net fishing is a stark contrast to modern purse-seiners or gillnetters. Reef netting was not an accident; reef net techniques were deliberately devised. The Straits Salish chose to fish this way and they refined their gear and their knowledge to become highly effect
ive salmon slayers; I am a testament of the effectiveness of my ancestors and the sockeye runs that were not fished to extinction and return every year are a testament to the relationship between the fish and their prey.
Nothing was more important to reef netters than this relationship; it was founded on deep respect and formed their worldview. There were three features of the reef net that displayed the deeply seeded respect between the hunter and the hunted.
Every advantage was given to the sockeye. Firstly, there was a physical limit to the number of fish that would be caught each time the net was set and collapsed. Secondly, a large hole in the net allowed a certain number of fish to escape, and finally, the first salmon ceremony that annually re-established the connection between fish and fisherman allowed a significant part of the run to make it home to spawn.
This relationship was central to the way of life of a reef netter. Rather than viewing the sockeye as a resource to be exploited in full, reef netters believe the fish, like every other living being, was once a human. Through this belief no living thing was lower than another, all deserved the same level of respect, all living things were an integral part of the circle of life.
The sockeye that passed by our nets were honoured as sacred lineages, no different that the lineage of reef netters that sat in their canoes waiting for the fish, both were part of the same cycle. Just as the fisherman returned to that same spot, at the same time in the annual progression of life, so did the fish.
So when the first sockeye was gently guided into the net behind our canoes, the crew chief would call an end to fishing, the gear was pulled from the water and the crew would return to the beach to celebrate the return of the sockeye. The first salmon ceremony lasted for up to a week.
The first salmon ceremony was a sacred ritual and very practical. The wealth of a Straits Salish reef netter was not counted by the number of sockeye he could catch, p
reserve and trade alone. The wealth of a Straits Salish reef netter was also calculated by the long-term quality and abundance of the fishing grounds he owned, cared for and passed down to his descendants.
The act of deep respect was also an act of what we now call conservation. Rather than be overcome with greed and scoop up every salmon at first sight, reef netters allowed the first part of the run, arguably the strongest part of the run, to make it past their nets to fill the spawning grounds, preserving the long-term viability of their fishery.
The legacy of a reef netter was counted by what he didn’t harvest. His wealth increased through the annual act of selfless generosity to both the fish and his children. As long as he taught his crew the same deeply rooted respect that he had learned from his parents and grandparents, then the reef netter would preserve a wealthy inheritance for many generations to come.
Surely he could have taken every last fish from his run and he could have counted great wealth for one season. A reef netter could have done this for maybe a generation, and he would have been wealthy for a generation, but even as he ensures the demise of the lineage of sockeye, he would have also been ensuring the demise of his lineage.
Just as his actions preserved the sacred lineage of the salmon that passed by his reef net, the fisherman also preserved the sacred lineage of his family. The first salmon ceremony and the large holes in his nets ensured the long-term wealth for the fisherman and his family.
There is a glaring distinction between our modern economy based on stripping it and shipping it and the reef net. Perhaps we can learn from the ancient science and economics of the reef netter. Europeans felt they had nothing to learn from the reef netters. Europeans saw the reef net as unfair, they called the reef net a fish trap and by the 1950’s they had outlawed it.
Like so much of what the ‘savages’ in North America did, its complex simplicity would be utterly destroyed before it could be understood. For the European a salmon’s value only could only be calculated once it was dead. A live salmon returning to its stream to reproduce had no value, and so a multi-generational economy was sacrificed for the daily swings of Wall Street.
Looking back we can build the future. But we must be prepared to reconstruct our relationship with the fish. We must be prepared to elevate them; they must become our brothers and sisters.
Instead of adopting the technology that had worked in the straits for generations, we embraced the massively destructive fishing techniques of purse-seiners and gill-netters. What we did to the salmon we replicated to virtually every natural resource we have. There is no value to conservation in our modern economy it is recorded as a cost. The commodity left in the ground or in the ocean is wasted. We don’t care if there will be anything left to feed our children or grand-children.
Now more than half a century later we are going back and reclaiming our birthright. Just as the gentle flutter of the wings of a butterfly here, can make drastic changes a universe away, by inviting me to this conference you have inspired a whole new generation of reef netters.
While I was researching the reef net, a process I have only just begun to explore, I asked my relative Nick Claxton why we are not fishing like this any longer, he said he didn’t know why. I asked him what is stopping us from putting gear in the water; he said nothing stands in our way.
So today our ancestors raise their hands to you, today our ancestor’s tears are no longer tears of sadness; today they are tears of joy. As a result of your invitation to do this speech today, our whole world has changed. One week ago a group of my family members, including my sister Joni, travelled to Lummi to meet with our relatives who did a demonstration reef net fishery last summer.
We are going to fish again. This summer we will put gear in the water and we will relearn what generations of reef netters have forgotten. Thanks to you, we will once again be reef net fishermen.
But will we catch any fish? Those sacred lineages have been so damaged who knows if they even pass by our traditional fishing locations anymore. There are so many factors that we could get the fishing just right and never catch a sockeye.
Two hundred years ago the fishermen did not have to worry about where the fish were coming from and where they were going. All they were concerned about was being at the right place at the right time. Now that is not good enough.
After spending years at university you have your degree. You earned your job, deserve your pay and built your home. Not only have you have financed your house, you have spent hours in your garden and invested thousands in beautiful plants, the ones you love.
It is your dream home, and you have raised your children there, it is full of memories, first steps, first words, first dreams, first fights. Your roots are deep.
You are offered the chance to advance your area of study in a far-away land and now that the kids are gone you can afford to go away for a time and complete your work. After a few years in that far away land you return to find someone else living your home. How would you feel? Would you be saddened? Angered?
As a Councillor in the District of Central Saanich I was quickly introduced to a silent killer of the salmon, urbanization. Of course don’t think of how our brothers and sisters the salmon feel about the destruction of their homes, because up until today we did not view the salmon as our equals, but we destroy their homes with reckless abandon. Either in the name of urbanization or agriculture, fish bearing streams are turned to drainage ditches.
Drive along River Road in the Lower Mainland and see first hand the destruction of fish habitat. Head further east and witness the diking and hardening of the edges of the river. In the Fraser Valley, the dykes are necessary to protect urban development from millions, if not billions, of dollars of flood damage.
Along Goldstream, here in Greater Victoria, we have built a highway right next to what was once a very productive Chinook and Chum river. A few years ago, a fuel truck driven by a drunk, crashed and spilled its toxic load into the river destroying a generation of salmon fry. This year there was significantly diminished returns. The humans merely shrugged their shoulders, another cost of progress.
In Central Saanich, the Hagan/Graham watershed has been turned into an agriculture/industrial drainage system. The streams were a cheap storm water removal solution for the District and they conformed to the past accepted engineering practice of hydrological efficiency, getting the water off the land and into the ocean as soon as physically possible. Hydrological efficiency was essentially uncreative, lazy engineering not based on what was good for nature, but only what was good and cheap for humans.
The Steelhead Trout that my father used to catch in Hagan Creek, fish that were a staple food source for the many families on Tsartlip, are almost completely non-existent.
It’s not just the quality of water but also the quantity. In addition to the Keating Business/Industrial Park regularly dumping toxic waste into the headwaters, farmers all along the way have straightened the stream. Great volumes, with no natural impediments rush toward Saanich Inlet destroying any remaining spawning beds pushing them far out into the bay.
For those of you who know about Saanich Inlet, it was home to an amazing fish run. In the past there was two reasons to visit Victoria, Butchart Gardens and salmon fishing in the Saanich Inlet. I grew up on the water, my dad was a guide fisherman, and we slayed our fair share of the fish. My grandfather said that when he was boy the salmon were so thick you could walk across their backs to the Malahat.
That is long gone. Now you can fish in Saanich Inlet all day and catch very little, maybe the odd dogfish or jellyfish, but not a salmon.
Look closely at the maps of the Capital Regional District and you will see all the former fish bearing streams have become drainage ditches. Despite the yeoman’s effort of stream keepers across the region, they receive little or no support from the local governments who continue to zone and rezone land in a haphazard way.
When I brought this as environmental concerns to my colleagues on Council, they laughed me out of the room. When I brought them up as economic ones, there was a different response. No has ever done an economic impact assessment on our community of the disappearing salmon. We count their loss as a cost of progress and have a nice day!
Just as the value of preserving the sacred lineages of salmon was central to the inter-generational success of the reef netters, and just as conserving the salmon stock was good for the economy because it strengthened the long term economic viability of the people, so to is protecting fish bearing streams from urban development and rebuilding the ones we have already destroyed.
When I suggested that Central Saanich invest in stream rehabilitation and argued that this was the hidden cost of urban development, it was met with discomfort and anger. When I asked what the Saanich Inlet salmon meant to the local economy the question has met with a blank stare. We know the value of a house, we know what a tank of gas costs, and we sacrifice the salmon for a job or two in the Keating Business/Industrial Park, but we cannot quantify which was better for the economy nor do we even try.
As Bobby Kennedy Jr. said at GLOBE 2014, “Good environmental policy is always good economic policy.”
In addition to urbanization, trains full of diluted bitumen snake their way along our most important salmon rivers, the Fraser and Skeena, tempting fate daily. Politicians ignore scientists who have warned against overfishing the salmon and the herring and now because we have destroyed the ancient salmon runs of the Straits Salish we feed our insatiable desire for salmon with fish farms.
‘Pacific Salmon define British Columbia in our history, our connected culture, environment and economy. It is one of our most valuable renewable resources (pause), one that must be cherished and nurtured. Don’t tell Mr. Harper but a barrel of oil is only worth about $100 while a barrel of Sockeye is worth about $3000 – if there are investors in this room, which would you choose?
The salmon is one example of our tattered relationship with the natural world. Our belief that we are here to dominate the planet and every living thing on it is the very reason why our world is slipping further out of control.
Will we learn from the past to build the future? Will we rebuild our worldview? Will we reinvent our relationships with the world around us? For our survival, and the survival of our children and their children, we must change our perspective and once again become one of a countless number of species; we must become part of the circle of life rather than the keepers of it.
We are going to have to make drastic changes and it starts with each one of us, frankly, it starts with you. As certified biology professionals you have more responsibility than most and you have more impact than most.
As a Councillor I read reports from all types of “ologists” and I would often wonder how they arrived at the recommendation they did. I wondered why the reports have a disclaimer on the back absolving the professional from any wrongdoing? What value does the report even have?
Unfortunately the system is broken. Communities require proponents, applicants, to get reports from QEPs or qualified environmental professionals. The applicants set the terms of reference and paid for the reports, and unfrotunately it was obvious. This process needs to change.
If we are going to have a planet that can sustain life then we are going to have to stand up for nature, stand up for biodiversity and this is where I call on you!
This is your livelihood, but I implore you to use your seals with great care. Do not sign off on projects that are not good for nature, projects that do not protect or enhance biodiversity.
We have been under extreme pressure, proposed changes to the Agricultural Land Reserve, an amended parks act, Liquefied Natural Gas, oil pipelines, Site C dam, massive expansion of mining.
All of the proposed industrial development has been moving ahead at lightening speed in the name of jobs and economy. I am not necessarily against these projects, not all these projects should be stopped, but they must be held accountable for the cost of their destruction and many need your seals to go ahead. I implore you to set higher standards.
We can look back to build the future but it requires will and strength of character. Mitigation is the name of the game in our world, and in my business I am often encouraging our colleagues on both sides of the legislature to have the political will to stop mitigating and do what it right, to make decision that are not politically expedient rather to make decisions that are correct.
Your role as a professional biologist is to stand up for nature. Standing behind your clients is not standing up for nature and when you do this nature is always the loser, but it does not have to be. If it isn’t you who stands up for biodiversity who will?
(Photo courtesy aviewfromoldhand.com)