08/10/2015 03:40 EDT | Updated 08/09/2016 05:59 EDT

First Nations PhD Student Launches Revival Of Outlawed Reef-Net Fishing

"We built a full-sized, modern reef net and we actually went fishing with it last summer."

VANCOUVER — Almost a century after fishing practices unique to First Nations in British Columbia's Salish Sea were outlawed, members paddled canoes back to traditional waters and dropped their full-sized reef net.

It was the start of a long-term mission to revitalize the once-celebrated technique for gathering food and bonding community for the Strait Salish people.

The web-like net — about the length of a city bus — was suspended between two canoes in an endeavour by a University of Victoria doctoral student who envisions bringing his nation's fishing style "back to life."

"In traditional times, it was really the backbone of our society," said Nick Claxton, who successfully defended his thesis on the practice in late July before an academic panel and 100 of his community members.

"And that's how I want it to be in the future. Where we can all be reef-net fishermen."

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.

"What is ironic is right around that time they allowed J. H. Todd and Sons to fish with their fish trap. It was at the time when the industrial-commercial fisheries started to develop," he said. "What I think they wanted was just access to our fishing locations."

Aboriginals were discriminated against despite being signatories to the 1852 Douglas Treaty, which formally guaranteed their fisheries, Claxton said.

Some First Nations maintained the fishery on the American side of the Salish Sea, but Washington state officials stopped them in the 1950s or 1960s, said Claxton.

"That was really the last time we fished with reef nets," said Claxton. "The knowledge system of it was nearly lost."

Claxton realized the opportunity for reviving the fishery style as he dove into his thesis.

"It became more a project of 'Let's go out and do it.' So that's how that happened. We built a full-sized, modern reef net and we actually went fishing with it last summer."

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."