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.