skip navigation
Support KUOW
Reef–netters in Rosario Strait. Photo by John Ryan.

Reef–netters in Rosario Strait. Photo by John Ryan.


Fishing The Lummi Way

John Ryan

Just west of Bellingham, a small fleet of reef–netters continues to make a living the way the Lummi tribe invented centuries ago. But these reef–netters aren't Lummis. On small barges anchored near a shallow reef, spotters in rubber boots and raingear cling to metal towers. They're on the lookout for sockeye salmon swimming toward Canada's Fraser River. It's a banner year for Fraser River sockeye and the people who catch them. KUOW's John Ryan reports from Lummi Island.


The morning fog hasn't quite burned off of Rosario Strait as an oil tanker heads south between Orcas and Lummi islands. Below the surface, thousands of sockeye head north. They're aiming for the Fraser River and their spawning grounds upstream. But Riley Starks and his crew have something else planned for them.

Starks: "I'm Riley Starks and we're in Legoe Bay off of Lummi Island, and I'm standing on top of a tower about 20 feet off the water, looking for sockeye salmon. I've done this fishery for 18 years, and I'm a newcomer, the guys on that — here's a school! Here's a school! Go! Go!"

Starks' crew of five springs into action. Electric winches reel in a net suspended between their two small barges. The edges of the net rise to the surface, and the school of sockeye inside has nowhere to turn.

Starks races down a ladder to help his crew haul in the net by hand, as fast as they can. They want to get the fish out of the water, and the reef net back in the water, before the next school of sockeye passes through. The silver and green sockeye weigh about six pounds each. They thrash like mad as they're hoisted out of the water and put in a holding tank.

The 60–year–old commercial fisherman bounces up and down the tower ladder like someone half his age. From the top, he can spot salmon swimming 20 feet underwater.

Starks: "These fish are coming from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, finding their way to Rosario Strait, the tide brings 'em straight to Lummi Island. If it weren't foggy, you could see the beginning of the Fraser up there."

Because reef–netters wait for the fish to come to them, Starks says they have much less environmental impact than salmon boats that head out to sea.

Starks: "They have to chase the fish. There's the tenders and all the little boats that go out and fish. There's just a huge amount of fossil fuels that go into that, usually fished in remote places, then you have to get the fish back to the lower 48."

Stark's barge even has solar panels to run the winches. But he admits there is a downside to reef netting.

Ryan: "You said people call it 'grief netting'?"

Starks: "Grief netting, yeah."

Ryan: "Why is that?"

Starks: "Well, because, you'll see a giant school of 50 or 100 fish. They'll come right up to the head and turn, and, it's like, you can't do anything but watch 'em go. They may come back, they may not come back."

There's not much grief on this day. Starks is constantly going up and down the ladder as the sockeye keep coming.

Starks: "I'm winded! I'm getting old, But I'm not nearly as old as those guys. That guy's been fishing for 69 years, he's 82."

Even a fisherman that old would never have seen a year as good as this one. Biologists expect 25 million sockeye salmon to return to the Fraser River this year. It's the biggest return since before World War I. Fishermen and fisherwomen from western Washington will get to catch nearly 2 million of those fish. Nine Washington tribes will get the lion's share of that.

Most of the fishing is concentrated in a frenzied couple of weeks in August. The bounty is night–and–day from recent years. Two years ago, US officials declared a disaster, the Fraser runs were so low. Last year, the fishery was canceled.

Canadian officials have created a special commission to find out why so many sockeye just disappeared last year. On this August morning, two rows of reef net operations are working the waters off Lummi Island, just a few hundred yards from a beach lined with waterfront homes.

Starks: "Back in the old days, there used to be nine rows, all the way out to Lummi Rocks. This fishery's pretty tiny compared to what it used to be."

In fact the Lummi tribe used to have reef nets throughout the San Juan Islands. The Lummis got pushed out of the islands and onto a reservation outside of Bellingham. Industrial fish–trap operations took over their reef net sites and many Lummi got work in the salmon canneries.

By the time the destructive fish traps were outlawed, newcomers got the reef net sites. The Lummi kept fishing on Fraser sockeye, but from fishing boats, not reef towers.

Cultee: "That's all we've known. That's what we grew up on, was making a living on the Fraser sockeye."

Cliff Cultee is a commercial fisherman and a member of the Lummi Tribal Council. I caught up with him on the Lummi Reservation dock after he'd spent the day patching the fiberglass of his gill netter boat.

Cultee: "My grandfather and uncles, they all had their own purse seiners, like 58–foot boats. The routine was, after school, we'd get up, go to the web locker in Bellingham, we'd put the nets together with all the uncles and grandfather and crews, do all the nets all at once, everybody's nets, everybody help each other, and go out fishing. We didn't really have so many restrictions on our fishery. We just went fishing."

Cultee says the runs started declining in the 1980s. Many Lummi fishermen had to turn to something besides sockeye.

Cultee: "Because we just couldn't make it on salmon fishing alone anymore. Things started dwindling and we had to find other opportunities to make money and keep lights on, food on the table for our families."

Cultee says Dungeness crab has become the most important fishery for the Lummi nation. The tribal dock itself demonstrates the shift. Hundreds of crab pots are stacked all along the 200–foot–long dock. More recently, some Lummi have outfitted their fishing boats to catch something that probably doesn't spring to mind when you think of seafood.

Cultee: "They're a really hard creature to describe but kind of look like an elongated balloon with these little horns on the back of them, and these little nubs on the belly side of them."

They're sea cucumbers.

Cultee: "They have a mouth, they don't have any eyes or anything. So when they move around, they can twist or corkscew. That's how they can move around on the tide. They can inflate themselves and roll with the tide."

Cultee says it took several years to learn how to find sea cucumbers in commercially viable numbers. But Lummi divers plucked a record number off the seafloor last year for export to Asia.

Ryan: "This was a really big year for cucumber catch?"

Cultee: "Yeah, it sure was. We had a mild winter. We are having more time on water, and the guys are getting more adaptable to finding the cucumbers. So we're just catching cucumbers too fast."

Lummi divers have cut back their harvest from what they're legally allowed. Little is known about the biology of the seafloor water balloons. So Lummi divers are playing it safe to make sure they're not overharvesting them.

Cultee says he likes diving for cucumbers and being underwater. But he says the Lummi still go salmon fishing whenever they can.

Cultee: "When fishing comes around, everybody drops what they're doing. They get ready and go out. That's just who we are. When fishing season's here, you see people with that look in their eye, going down the road, or you see them at the hardware store or at the net store or hydraulic place, and they're getting their stuff ready for their boats. And everybody's got that gleam in their eye, you know, we're getting ready to go fishing. I've seen it."

Nobody expects this year's supersize run of sockeye to repeat any time soon. The offspring of this year's sockeye won't mature for four years. In the off years of the Fraser's four–year cycle, the runs are much smaller.

But this summer at least, tribal and nontribal fishers alike are enjoying the best sockeye fishing of their lives.

Starks: "Nice school!"

Man: "Get the sides! Get the sides!"

Starks: "Nice school!"

Reporting from Lummi Island, I'm John Ryan, KUOW News.

Starks: "Wow! Whoa!"

© Copyright 2010, KUOW