Reefnet fishing is the most sustainable salmon fishing practice there is, with virtually no by-catch mortality. Riley Starks, our executive director, is a lifelong commercial fisherman and decades long reefnet fisherman. He has witnessed the regional decline in our salmon population first hand, and became a reef net fisherman because of it. This fishing practice has been used by the Salish People for over 1800 years but has fallen out of favor with the current practices of gill-net fishing and purse seining. While the latter practices are commercial successes, they are not selective and kill any and all fish caught, including untargeted species coming from fragile salmon runs. This is killing off the fishing wealth of the Salish Sea.
Fraser River Sockeye, Coho, Chinook and Keta salmon are the fish that migrate through the San Juan Islands annually and directly in front of Lummi Island on their way home. Every-other-year, Pink salmon come on the same course. These salmon runs often swim together in the same schools, creating a difficult management situation that only selective fishing methods can solve. Often endangered late-run sockeye swim with abundant pinks, and so it goes with coho and sometimes endangered keta, depending on run timing. All of these situations are no problem for reefnet fishing. In our region not all salmon species are yet endangered, but Chinook and Keta salmon are. When Reefnet fishermen catch what is called bicatch, or fish whose limits have been reached, they are able to release them immediately to the sea, unharmed. It is the reason this selective fishing method is so important.
There are hundreds of reefnet sites in our Salish Sea, but only twelve sets of reefnet fishing gear are in use today. If we are to save our salmon runs and support the Salish Sea Ecosystem, we need to change the fishing practices in areas where we can. Lummi Island—where Salish Center is headquartered—and the San Juan Islands, are the ideal areas to focus the revival of this fishing method. It starts with educating people about this practice. The goal of the Salish Center is the successful reintroduction of this method in our region. To accomplish this, we need the State to recognize reefnet fishing as the most sustainable fishing method, and then provide sensible fishing allocations, so fishermen using this method can operate successfully. Without the reintroduction of this method and other sustainable fishing practices, salmon fishing here will simply vanish as it has previously on our Atlantic coast, Northern Europe, and the developed world.