By Tyler Bergen
The waters around the San Juan Islands are home to some of the freshest salmon available in the state. Harvested by the Lummi Island Wild Cooperative (LIWC) and other reefnet fishing operations, these fish are captured sustainably and served in fine restaurants and co-ops across Whatcom County.
The LIWC operates through a process called reefnet fishing: a more sustainable process of capturing fish, and use completely solar energy to power their gears and pulleys.
Reefnet fishing differs from the traditional commercial fishing methods, like dredging and trawling. The fish are caught in nets pulled between two catamarans, and the fish are then sorted and put into a submerged holding net to keep the fish alive until just before harvest.
Reefnet fishing was developed by Native Americans thousands of years ago as they began to notice the movement patterns of the salmon, and learned how to trap and capture them in reefs.
Since then, this method of fishing has been perfected thanks to modern technology, the fishermen are now able to sort their catch in the water, and return the majority of improperly caught fish.
In a statement by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, they said that although modern technology has helped advance reefnet fishing, the basic methods have stayed nearly the same since Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest first started trapping fish in shallow reefs.
Riley Starks is the owner and proprietor of Nettle’s Farm Bed and Breakfast, a partner of the LIWC. Starks and his team along with four other partners from the Pacific Northwest comprise the local fishermen’s co-op.
There are 11 licensed reefnet fisheries in the US, all of which are located here in the waters of Washington. They operate amongst the San Juan Islands and along the coast of Washington. LIWC, Barlean’s Fish Company, and a few other private fisheries are the only reefnet fisheries in the world.
The LIWC is made up of four local reefnet fisheries, which also purchase salmon from several other reefnet fisheries in Washington, in order distribute as much fresh salmon possible.
Sustainable fishing is only a small fraction of the fishing industry in Bellingham and the greater Puget Sound area. Sustainable fishing practices are bringing salmon to people faster, and fresher than ever before. The LIWC harvests and sells their salmon fresh, daily during the salmon season.
In 2013, Fisheries in the U.S harvested 9.9 billion pounds of fish,equating to 5.5 billion dollars in revenue according to studies by the National Office of Science and Technology. According to the same studies, in 2013, 353 thousand tons (about 706 million pounds) of aqua-cultured salmon were consumed in the U.S, a much larger amount than the 36 million fish harvested by commercial fisheries in the northwest pacific (Washington, Alaska and Oregon) during 2013.
Aqua-cultured, or farmed salmon are on average six dollars cheaper than naturally caught salmon, but contain less nutrients, and have been known to carry diseases and bacteria.
“This year we harvested about 200 thousand pounds of salmon, three years ago we harvested 500 thousand pounds of salmon,” said Starks. All of this was done without farming, without bycatching and without burning fossil fuels, he added.
Traditional fishing practices have been known to over fish, destroy habitats and cause unnecessary deaths through poor sorting practices. The fishing industry has been a huge factor in natural salmon population declines, according to Riley Hills, Nooksack Salmon Enhancement Association (NSEA) volunteer coordinator, 24.
Salmon are a keystone species to the Pacific Northwest, meaning that they are vital to the health of other species and are responsible for carrying out countless ecosystem services. It’s important to keep salmon habitats healthy to promote the growth of the natural salmon population, instead of farming and relying on genetically modified ones, Hills said.
“The key is to not be indiscriminate as to what you’re catching. We are getting to the point that we need to keep all Chinook alive for spawning,” said Starks. “As we learn more about the fish stock, we learn which runs are doing well, and which aren’t, and we can do genetic testing, and in fact our fish are tested for DNA so that the salmon commission can tell what’s going on with the runs,” he added.
Due to the unique habitat of salmon, both in fresh water rivers and in salt water oceans, salmon do the job of linking these two ecosystems together: nutrients the fish pick up in the sea are eventually deposited upland in rivers as the salmon reproduce and decompose, a process that keeps the water and soil healthy and regulated.
Organizations like the LIWC and NSEA are constantly working to improve the health of the salmon populations in Whatcom County. Work parties are regularly held by NSEA to clean up rivers and streams that are vital to salmon reproduction.
Planting trees along rivers to create shade, and by removing dams and other man made disturbances to salmon habitats, salmon conservation groups are slowly trying to repair the damage that was done to these ecosystems since the rise of commercial fishing and the urbanization of coastal Washington, Alaska, Canada and Oregon.
The LIWC harvests much of their salmon from Legoe Bay by Lummi Island, and is a hotbed for various species of salmon that travel down currents from the Rosario Strait towards the Fraser River for spawning.
Native Americans have been fishing these parts and using these methods long before recorded history. The LIWC are maintaining a tried and true relationship between humans and salmon.
For the fishermen, reefnet fishing is about more than catching a fresh fish, it’s also about eliminating bycatch and putting an end to over harvesting to ensure the growth of future salmon populations, says Starks.
“Because we keep our fish alive after we catch them, we can bleed them. They are bled from the live well where they swim until they bleed out, which is a very non-traumatic way for them to die, and provides a much cleaner flavor,” said Starks.
“People who are buying our fish are the people who care a lot about our sustainability. Patagonia has started buying fish from us that they will begin selling in March through one of their new brands,” he added.
The LIWC has found success selling their product to companies that value sustainability, and has sold product on google and Microsoft campuses, as well as activist corporations like the Patagonia clothing company.
According to Melissa Arbiter, Community Food Co-op seafood manager, during the fresh salmon season (May-September), they insist on sourcing their Coho and King salmon locally through sustainable fisheries.
In a statement about what sets their fish apart, the LIWC said, “The Fraser River has hundreds of tributaries where salmon spawn, some over a thousand miles from the Straits of Juan de Fuca, where the fish stop eating. It is a journey through some of the most turbulent and difficult waters of any Alaskan, Canadian, or Northwest river system. In comparison, the Copper River in Cordova Alaska is about 350 miles long. A salmon there needs only a third of the fat required by a Fraser River salmon. Nature prepares these amazing fish for a journey home that is second to none in requirements for stored energy. We harvest our Fraser River Salmon long before they enter the river. So they still have all of the stored energy in the form of fat and omega 3’s that give our fish a texture, flavor and the health benefits associated with salmon oil and omega 3’s that no other salmon can offer.”