Before the practise of reef net fishing was banned from local waters it was more than a reliable source of food for people of the WSÁNEÇ (Saanich) Nation, it symbolized their way of life.
Nicholas Claxton, a University of Victoria education advisor and a member of the Tsawout Band and Saanich Nation, has been researching the importance of reef net fishery practices for over a decade. He’s helped construct the first 40-foot long reef net on the South Island, and in B.C., one that’s unique to the Coast Salish people. It was with him for his July 31 thesis defence, held at the Gathering Strength community centre in Tsawout.
Rarely does a defence happen away from the university, but Claxton was awarded special permission. More than 100 members of his community partook. The event started with a traditional opening to the gathering, which was blended into the university’s processes, and it was really quite amazing, said Claxton.
“We called a speaker and witnesses from the [Tsawout] community, all done in our traditional language, which made it official in our traditional laws. And it ended with the sharing of a meal.”
The Saanich [style] reef net was banned by the government in 1915, called a fish trap, and prohibited from use in Canadian waters, Claxton explained.
“Part of my research project was interviewing the last remaining reef netters in my community, elders including my father.”
Claxton gathered all of the information he could, whether it was from literature or oral history, and that’s how the idea came about to create a new reef net, he said.
The net is about 40 feet long and 20 to 30 feet wide, with a lead on it about 70 feet long. It narrows down on one end to create a funnel, using tides, anchors, currents and the paths of salmon to catch fish.
“We built the net with the help of some relatives from Lummi Nation [in Washington]. They’re going through a similar effort to bring it back to their community, they built one the year before,” Claxton said. “Some of our reef net sites are also on the American side [of the San Juan Islands], some of our elders continued fishing with them in the U.S. until the 1960s.”
Because they’re not dragged around by boat, reef nets are a highly sustainable method of fishing. They rely much less on fossil fuels, as they were traditionally carried to sites by canoe, and all unused catch is returned to the sea unharmed. It means any fish that are threatened may be left alone.