Claxton, 42, initially set out to document the history of reef-net fishing and investigate ways to restore the practice. His research found that Strait Salish people relied on the method until 1916, when the colonial government called it a "fish trap" and brought in a ban.
Band members of all ages got involved. Schoolchildren were taught about the lore, while youth and elders designed the system and then held a sacred ceremony. They left from Saanich Peninsula and went fishing in their hereditary fishing grounds around Pender Island, one of the southern Gulf Islands along the Canada-United States border. It was the first test of their newly constructed net, made with the same materials as a modern seine net. They suspended it between two canoes, which were secured by anchors. The net remained opened at one end, acting like a corral for incoming salmon. There was only one hitch in the trial last August — the fish didn't co-operate. The sockeye run was massive, but most returning salmon migrated along a different route than expected, likely due to warmer waters, Claxton said. "We didn't catch anything, but it was a success because we were able to get the net fishing. And nothing bad happened, no accidents," he said. "The experience of doing it was more valuable than anything." One reef net could haul up to 5,000 salmon per day. Claxton's hoping for another attempt this year — maybe in a few weeks — but it could be stymied again, by a low salmon returns. His research will form the backbone of new curriculum in a local school. High school students will not only learn the fishery technology, but about its sustainability. No fossil fuels are burned, while unwanted bycatch can be released unharmed. "That's the practical reasons for it, but it's also a fundamental part of our traditional way of life," Claxton said. "It can provide a sense of identity for our community and our nation."
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