Lummi Nation Holds onto Tradition by Moving into the Future

An aluminum apparatus anchored off Cherry Point signals an effort to bring traditional tribal reef-net fishing into the modern era.

Lummi fisherman Larry Kinley built the reef-net boat with Pat Pitsch of Strongback Metal Boats using technology shared by the fishing cooperative Lummi Island Wild. Historically, a reef net, or sxwo’le, was strewn between two canoes, with tribal fishermen looking down from a perch above. When fish mistook the net for a reef and swam into it, the fishermen lifted the sxwo’le.

Kinley’s reef-net boat, Spirit of Sxwo’le, is higher tech. The net, which resembles the sea floor, is spread between two aluminum pontoons. His two sons work one pontoon, with Lucas sitting atop a ladder watching for fish, while Kyle mans the sidelines and documents the fishery using a drone-mounted camera. Four underwater cameras attached to the net transmit to a monitor in a shed on the other pontoon, where his wife, Ellie Kinley, watches for fins swimming across the screen.

Ellie didn’t have too much opportunity to yell for the crew to lift the net during the August sockeye fishery, because there were very few fish to catch. The family viewed the inaugural effort as practice for future fisheries, when they hope to bring tribal youth on board.

“We’re looking toward next year,” Larry said. “Nobody’s fished this area for a long time; we don’t have a gauge for how many fish come through here.”

A few years ago, tribal fisherman Troy Olsen said something similar while showing tribal youth how to use a reef net from a canoe.

“Our journey back to the sxwo’le, our reef net, is in its infancy and we’re just now starting,” he said. “We’ll go through several years of trials before we can really get back to the salmon path.”

The reef-net technology results in a higher quality fish, which can help fishermen support themselves when returns are small, Larry said. The fish go from the net directly into a live bin before they are bled and put onto ice.

“There’s minimal handling, so we can sell the fish for more,” he said. “We can survive on less.”

The Cherry Point location of Spirit of Sxwo’le’s debut is significant because it is the site of Xwe’chie’Xen, a Lummi tribal village and traditional reef net site for hundreds of years. Pacific International Terminals had planned to build the largest coal terminal in the country there, until the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers denied the permit last May at the request of the tribe.

Area tribes and environmental groups opposed the deep-water terminal because it would have destroyed the fishing resource, degraded habitat, increased train traffic and coal dust pollution, and brought with it the possibility of spills and derailment.

A statement announcing the Corps’ decision explained that because of the federal government’s trust responsibility, the “Corps may not permit a project that abrogates treaty rights.”