Local reefnetters keeping traditions alive
For many local fishers, this year’s short, disappointing salmon season will mean financial hardships for the rest of the year.
Fortunately for Lummi Island’s Riley Starks, he’s not in the industry for the money.
As a reefnetter, where fishers don’t chase the salmon but rather wait for the fish to come to them, Starks is among 11 license holders in the state still practicing what’s believed to be one of the oldest forms of net fishing in the world.
“For us, it’s about the quality of the salmon and it’s about keeping the fishery alive; that’s what reefnetting’s all about,” said Starks, 55, a longtime local fisherman and owner of Lummi Island’s Willows Inn, Nettles Farm and Beach Store Café. “It could easily die, but we don’t want that to happen — and we’re working really hard to make sure it doesn’t.”
As the sun slowly began to set on the west side of the island on a recent night, Starks, following a long day’s work of preparing his gear for the next day’s 6 a.m. season opener, sat on his deck at the Willows and sipped a beer.
Looking out at the deep blue waters of the Strait of Georgia, with Matia, Sucia and Patos islands growing purple in the background, he was equal parts nostalgic and optimistic about the fishery.
Locally, he said, Lummi Indians had been practicing the fishery for perhaps thousands of years, and it caught on with white fishers in the 1930s, after fish traps were banned.
A latecomer to the fishery, Starks bought his gear shortly after he moved to the island in 1991, as a way to fit in with the locals, he said. Several years ago, fellow fishers Walt Ingram, Dave Hansen, Tom Monroe and Keith Carpenter, president of the Wood Stone Corporation, put their gear together and formed Lummi Wild, which sells its catch around the Puget Sound.
“When I moved to the island, I wanted to be part of the island,” Starks said. “You can’t see it right now but back then reefnetting was the driving culture of this island, and if you wanted to be a part of the island you had to reefnet. Most people around here have been out on the gear.”
Over the years, reefnetting has changed very little, Starks said, save for bigger boats and electric winches. It’s still done primarily in Lummi Island’s Legoe Bay, a near-guaranteed destination for salmon to pass through as they move northward toward the Fraser River to spawn.
Reefnets are a series of artificial barriers, strung between two anchors and two boats, made of lines and ribbons, which aim to fool fish into thinking they’re swimming between two reefs.
The artificial reefs guide the salmon into a scoop-shaped net which is suspended between the two boats. Each boat, typically a 40-foot catamaran-type vessel with a five-person crew, has a lookout tower for fishers to stand on. When they see the fish swim over the end net between the two boats, the nets are quickly pulled up.
Unlike other fishers, reefnetters don’t follow the fish. As a result, catches are usually smaller than for gillnetters or purse seiners. Also, reefnetting can only be done on a flood tide and it’s always a gamble trying to get fish to swim between 200-foot wide artificial reefs.
“Reefnetting is also call ‘griefnetting,’ because just about anything can spook the fish,” Starks said. “There’s about a 50-50 chance we’ll get ‘em.”
The Lummi Wild reefnetters have some advantages other fisheries don’t, though, said Starks.
First, there’s little fossil fuel used to chase fish and there’s little other disruption to the environment.
“It doesn’t disturb the bottom, there’s no bycatch and we only use electric winches and a skiff to go out to the gear,” Starks said. “It’s just as green as green can be.”
When the fish are first pulled onto the deck, they are placed into a live holding pen, which allows for the dissipation of lactic acid that may have built up during their struggle, he said. The fish are then sorted and unwanted species, such as the protected Chinook, are released.
After a few moments, the fish are then bled, by cutting a gill near their heart, and placed in another pen where they swim until death. Finally, they are placed in slush ice, where they remain until the end of the day when they’re processed.
Some salmon connoisseurs can notice, and prefer, having their fish bled, said Starks.
“You’d never eat beef or a pig without getting a complete bleed on it,” he said. “Blood goes rancid really easy. If you’ve ever tasted that fishy, metallic flavor, that’s rancid blood.”
Tim Ferleman, head seafood buyer for Anthony’s Restaurants, which offered Lummi Wild salmon this summer, said the only things holding back widespread popularity of reefnet-caught salmon are publicity and the small volume of fish which can be caught in the fishery.
“I’ve been very impressed with the fish and the handling technique is great,” Ferleman said. “They get ‘em cleaned and iced right away and I’ve told people for years the most important thing with fish is the first step when they come out of the water. I’m not one to go crazy, but these are really great sockeye. They’re really high in oil and excellent eating. To be honest, the Copper River sockeye (the established gold standard of market sockeye) aren’t really even in the same league.”
Elsewhere on the retail side, Adrian Hilde, plant manager at Vis Seafood, said that while he likes the reefnet techniques, consumers tend to buy what’s cheapest. This summer, reefnet sockeye was selling for $8.99 per pound at Vis; other sockeye was $7.99.
Lummi Wild fish are also sold locally at the Fairhaven Market, Community Food Co-op and Metropolitan Markets.
Despite commercial salmon fishing’s bleak outlook, Starks said he likes reefnetting’s long-term possibilities because of its ability to sort unwanted species.
And while reefnetters likely can’t make a year-round living on the fishery, if they can catch 15,000 pounds in a summer, and get buyers to pay $4 per pound, crews can still split a gross share of $60,000, “a nice, little summer income,” said Starks.
“Wild salmon is coming back,” he said. “As people learn more about wild salmon, it’s like wine. First you learn what you like, then as you get into it, you say, ‘That’s the one I want.’”