Whenever possible, I like to include Skyla and Weston in some of the work I’m doing. It’s a way for us to share some cool experiences and give the kids a little bigger view of the world. Fortunately, the people I was working with on Lummi Island share that point of view. Birgit, who runs Patagonia Provisions, brought her family along, as did James, who’s the product manager. The kids wasted no time in becoming fast friends, and they quickly descended on the tide pools in front of the house we stayed in.
I also wanted the kids to learn more about commercial salmon fishing, so we went out to the reef-net “gears,” and spent an afternoon doing what we could to be helpful. That’s Josh, the reef-netter, teaching Weston how to catch and bleed fish from the live tank. Huge thanks to the kind and exceptionally kid-friendly crews aboard the reef-net boats.
Later that day, I borrowed the Wild Fish Conservancy skiff to take the kids sport fishing. But the sudden appearance of harbor porpoises changed the objective. We followed them all the way across the channel, and ended up at a seal rookery, where dozens of mother and baby seals were hauled out on the rocks.
On another day, Keith and Riley, from the Lummi Island Wild salmon co-op, took us on their new tender to pick up fish from the outlying reef nets. The trip also doubled as an awesome tour of all the San Juan Islands, and included a stop for ice cream at Roche Harbor. (The looks on all the yachtie’s faces when a huge work boat pulled in amongst the fancy pleasure craft and released a pack of barefoot kids into their midst was priceless.) That’s Weston, Skyla, Claire and Gracie holding down the fish bins aboard the Galactic Ice.
But every time we came back to shore, the kids went immediately back to the tide pools. They built elaborate “habitats” in salad bowls and buckets to temporarily house the critters they found. While Birgit and James (from Provisions), Kurt and Nick (from Wild Fish Conservancy) and Riley and Keith (from Lummi Island Wild) and I discussed how this union of a commercial interest, a fish conservation NGO and fishermen can help save salmon, and Darcy (filmmaker) shot b-roll for her video of the reef netters, the kids absorbed themselves in sea life. When I went to check on them, I heard Skyla and Gracie shouting, “We have to improve the habitat! We have to improve the habitat!” A fitting sentiment, I thought, for the meeting going on inside.
The kids and I spent a few days up on Lummi Island this week, checking out what is quite possibly the most responsible, environmentally friendly commercial fishing enterprise in the world. The Lummi Island reef netters employ an ancient technique, where a net is suspended between two anchored boats; when the target species enters, the net is raised to capture them. The way it’s done on Lummi really sets the bar for low carbon footprint, zero by-catch and the highest quality fish.
First, the reef net boats–or “gears” as the whole array of lead lines, boats and nets is called–are anchored in place for the season. The main netting location is just a few hundred yards offshore, so the only energy used to fish is the tablespoon or so of gas it takes to get from the beach to the “gears” by skiff. When the crew arrives on the boats, the nets are lowered into place and fishing begins. The spotter climbs to the top of a tall platform, the headstand, and watches for fish entering the net. When he sees the right species and number of fish, he or she–30% of the Lummi Island crew is made up of women–shouts “TAKE ‘EM!” The net flies upward, powered by a series of solar-powered winches, the captured fish are released into a live-well, and the net is re-deployed. It takes less than a minute and the boat is back fishing.
The zero by-catch starts with the visual spotting of fish entering the net. If non-target species approach, the net is simply left in place, allowing the fish to continue their migration. If, by some small chance, a non-target species is captured in the net along with the target species, it is released completely unharmed. But in two days on the gears, I did not witness a single non-target species inadvertently netted.
Finally, the quality of fish caught by this method is unbelievable. The fish go directly from the net into a live-well with no handling, and stay there until the crew is ready to start processing. Each fish is lifted from the live-well by hand, and bled in another well. (The presence of blood in salmon flesh creates the majority of off flavors.) It then goes directly into an ice slurry, nearly untouched and completely free of blood. Unlike gill nets or seines, the other main commercial harvest techniques used in the area, reef-net fish are not bruised, caught by the gills, or abraded during any part of the process.
On a cultural level, we found none of the macho, us-against-nature mentality that sometimes develops in other commercial fishing fleets. To a man (or woman) everyone we met on the Lummi Island crew was exceptionally relaxed, welcoming and kind, with a clear sense of responsibility for the resource, and pride in what they were doing.
I was lucky enough to spend a couple of days this week with Lummi Island reef netters, Riley Starks and Keith Carpenter, learning about this ancient fishing technique. We toured their fishing equipment, or “gears,” which are on dry land for the winter, went out on the water to see where and how they fish, and shared an exquisite dinner and lodging at Nettles Farm. Pictured above are the skiffs we used for transportation, onshore at Legoe Bay, where the reef netting takes place.
Reef netting involves a pair of anchored pontoon boats, each equipped with 20-foot tall spotting towers and a net suspended in the water between the two boats. Individual schools of fish are spotted from above, and when they enter the net, the entrance is manually raised to trap the fish inside. The visual aspect of this alone allows fishermen to target specific species of salmon while letting non-target species pass through unharmed. In the event that non-target fish are trapped along with the harvestable fish, they are released unharmed with minimal contact, which results in a by-catch mortality of less than half of one percent.
This is a huge difference from non-selective methods of fishing, such as gillnets, which kill all the fish that come into contact with the fishing gear. Today, with so many salmon stocks in serious trouble, while others are returning in abundance, if we are going to harvest any salmon at all, this is the kind of method that makes sense. It lets fishermen to fish longer, produces higher quality fish because they are each handled individually, and most importantly, allows depressed stocks to pass through with little or no harm to their populations. A truly uplifting vision of how commercial fishing can work. It turns out, once again, that the best ways for the future are, in fact, the ways of the past.