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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

01 February 2014


Dave and Don Yansen,
Leaving home for early morning start 

 reefnet fishing at Squaw Bay, Shaw Island.
Photo by mother Gwendolyn Yansen, mid 1950s.
Reefnet owner Doug Baier (L) and
helper, Dan Sweeney, 1980s
Heading to the fish boats outside
Squaw Bay, Shaw Island, WA.

" Reefnetting, believed to be the oldest form of net fishing in the world, is unique to the Pacific Northwest. In the San Juans, this ancient art was the primary salmon harvesting method for local tribes, and the techniques employed date back hundreds, and perhaps thousands of years. Even today, most modern reefnets sit on traditional sites that have been fished for hundreds of years.
      In their heyday, native reefnets stretched from the southwest coast of Vancouver Island, up through the San Juans, and on to the mouth of the Fraser River. The west side of San Juan Island, the southern shore of Shaw and the west side of Orcas, Iceberg Point, Flat Point, and the mouth of Fisherman Bay on Lopez were all home to native reefnet gear.
      At least four local tribes worked reefnets in their territories: the Songish on San Juan, the Saanich on Haro Strait, Stuart Island, and Point Roberts, the Samish on southern Lopez, and the Lummi on Orcas, Shaw, and northwest Lopez. Summer villages were established near the sites to support the fishers, and a great deal of ritual and ceremony accompanied the start of each season's fishing.
      The technique used by native peoples varied little from that used by modern reefnetters. The gears were set to face the prevailing current, along which the salmon swim, and a pair of special canoes, with wide bows and flat sterns, were anchored parallel to each other, sterns facing the current. A net made of willow bark twine, measuring approximately 40-ft long by 30-ft wide, and dyed black to blend with the water, was suspended between the boats, and stones were used to weight the open end of the net facing the current.
      Reefnets were often set in kelp beds, where a channel could be cleaned through the kelp to funnel the salmon toward the net. The kelp was also cleared to make room for "head anchor" lines made of twisted cedar withe, which ran out from the sterns of the canoes in a vee. It there was no kelp to channel the fish, "lead lines," were added from the canoes to a "head buoy", or "reef", side lines were run from the lead lines down to the head anchor lines, which resulted in an artificial channel to direct the salmon into the net. If the water was deep, an artificial floor was created by adding horizontal lines between the head anchor lines to bring the salmon up to the proper depth to enter the net. To complete the illusion, enterprising fishers sometimes wove clumps of beach grass into the floor lines. A 'jump line', or peeled cedar pole near the net entry, spooked the fish as they funneled in, causing them to dive for the apparent safety created by the dark hole of the net.
      Native reefnets were set on hereditary sites, and manned by crews of 6 to 12 men, with a watchman in the stern of each canoe. The watchman in the offshore canoe was the captain, easily identified by his wide-brim cedar root hat, and deer tallow or red ochre on his face to cut the glare. Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, captains apparently wore a special headdress as a symbol of authority.
      The captain watched the fish enter the net, then gave the command to pull the net weights and the side lines suspending the net. When the net was full, a pin was pulled to give slack in the anchor lines, and the canoes were allowed to swing together. The net was pulled into the inshore boat, and the salmon were rolled into the offshore boat. After the fish were removed for transport to the beach, where they were dried on racks by wind and sun, or over slow fires, the canoes were separated, the net reset, and the process begun again.
      Fishing the reefnets required particular conditions, including daylight, calm water, and reasonable clear weather, since darkness, surface chop or heavy overcast made it impossible to see the salmon enter the net. Since all reefnets fish only on a given tide, they were manned only when the currents ran the proper direction. Different gears were also fished during different salmon runs. One set might work well for Chinook, but not for sockeye. Another might be particularly effective only on cohos, pinks, or chums.
      With the coming of the non-natives settlers, native populations, native fishing, declined. But the thing that almost wiped out reefnetting for good was the introduction of fish traps in the early 1890s. Those devices, huge enclosures built on pilings up to 120-ft deep, often extended their solid 'leads', up to half a mile out from the shore. Since they relied on the same currents as reefnets, they built upstream of the reefnet sites, and blocked, or 'corked' the traditional gears. The US Attorney sued on behalf of the natives in 1897, claiming the interception of the salmon by the traps was a treaty violation, but the courts ruled in favor of the traps, and the reefnets disappeared.
      Traps dominated the industry until they were outlawed in 1934, due to pressure from the growing purse seine fleet, and decreasing salmon runs, after which the reefnets began to make a comeback.
      Even though most of the reefnets in the islands were worked by non-native fishers after the demise of the fish traps, most gears were set on traditional sites, and the techniques remained largely unchanged. Manual winches were introduced which speeded up the process of pulling the nets and reduced the need for crewmen, and observations towers were added to the boats to improve visibility. But the boats were still essentially big canoes; the set up and techniques remained intact, despite using modern materials.
      While these improvements made the process more efficient, it was still grueling work. The season ran four or five months as different salmon runs came through the islands, and openings often lasted five or six days a week. Keeping the gear clear of kelp, working the big winches, and rolling the fish into the boats was exhausting, but it was a good living for many islanders.
      By the 1950s, there were some 90 reefnet operations in the San Juans and Lummi Island, says Lopezian Jack Girard, who heads the Washington Reefnet Owners Association, and who began working on the gears in the late 1950s. But due to declining runs of fish, a preference by most fishers for mobile techniques such as purse seining or gillnetting, and the infamous Boldt Decision, only 50 reefnets remain today (1997), with just 14 in the San Juans.
      Citing the 'environmentally friendly' aspect of his industry, Girard notes that reefnets don't trap birds, such as the endangered Marbled Murrelet, and also allow safe release of 'by-catch', or endangered fish species. As a fixed gear, they're easily monitored, and don't pollute, since they use no engines. 'I think those things, in today's fishing mode, give us a better chance of surviving what we're going through than any other (net fish) industry, period,' he says.
Ed Hopkins reefnet gear, Squaw Bay, 1981.
Ed Hansen and Jim Sesby pitching salmon

to the buyer boat, perhaps the PRIMO.
Courtesy of E/K Hopkins.

      The canoes have been augmented by rafts, that are more stable and can hold more fish in live tanks, and manual winches have been replaced by electric models that pull net more quickly and easily. Anchors are heavier, that allows the gears to work deeper sites and in swifter currents, and the nets are slightly larger and made of nylon. But even though the watchers have forsaken deer tallow in favor of Polaroid sunglasses, the essence of the art remains true to its ancient heritage. 'You still depend on your wits, Giard says. 'You still depend on your eyes.'"
Text by John Goekler for The Islands Weekly 3-10 August 1994.
Reefnet fishing has been modernized with electronic gear in the last few years; we hope to provide an update soon.
Shaw Island reefnet boats stored for winter, 1980s.
Squaw Bay, Shaw Island, WA.
Photo from the archives of the S. P. H. S.©
Shaw Island reefnet boats (as in photo above)
same site at Squaw Bay haulout, 2011.
Photo donated by Debra Madan, Orcas Island, WA.

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