Salmon fisheries in the North Pacific are facing multiple challenges, including declining fish populations and climate variability. In a new study from the Portland-based Wild Salmon Center, scientists report that Indigenous fishing practices can help revitalize Pacific salmon fisheries.
“Salmon and the communities that depend on them have been pushed to the brink by two centuries of extractive natural resource management,” said study lead author Dr. Will Atlas.”But the tools, practices, and governance systems of Indigenous Peoples maintained healthy salmon runs for millennia before that. Their knowledge is still here.”
For thousands of years, Indigenous communities around the North Pacific maintained sustainable salmon harvests. Before commercial fisheries took over, traditional fisheries used tools like weirs, traps, wheels, reef nets, and dip nets.
“As they’re currently built, mixed-stock salmon fisheries are undermining the biodiversity needed for Pacific salmon to thrive,” said Dr. Atlas. “Luckily, we have hundreds of examples, going back thousands of years, of better ways to fish. These techniques can deliver better results for all communities.”
Indigenous people focus on targeting salmon runs in river systems, rather than in the ocean. Selective fishing tools enable in-season monitoring, where the health of the salmon can be assessed in real-time, and non-target species can be released unharmed.
Study co-author Andrea Reid is a citizen of the Nisga’a Nation and an assistant professor of Indigenous Fisheries at the University of British Columbia’s Institute for Oceans and Fisheries
“In my Nation, we use fish wheels, an ancient technology that used to be made out of cedar and natural fibers,” said Professor Reid. “Today, we use modernized fish wheels to monitor, mark, and study the fish, to understand how they are doing in a rapidly changing world.”
For many Indigenous communities, salmon are much more than just a source of food. They are at the center of creation stories, ceremonies, family structures, and cultural identity.
“The ancient relationship between Heiltsuk and salmon infiltrates every aspect of Heiltsuk life,” said co-author William Housty, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation and Board Chair with the Heiltsuk Integrated Resource Management Department in Bella Bella, British Columbia. “Our modern-day management of salmon is based on the values of respect, reciprocity, and well-being.”
“In an era of rapid global change, we must explore different salmon management approaches,” said study co-author Dr. Jonathan Moore, a professor in Biological Sciences at British Columbia’s Simon Fraser University.
“By reinvigorating Indigenous practices, we can bring time-tested lessons to salmon fisheries and take a positive step toward recognizing the cultural fabric that has woven salmon and humans together for millennia.”
The study is published in the journal BioScience.