Unreserved

Reviving an outlawed fishery: 'the backbone of our Nation'

It was daybreak on a clear summer day. Nick Claxton stood at the boat launch with other members of the WSÁNEĆ Nation. Their ocean-going canoes were setting out onto the Salish Sea. They were ready to drop a full-size reef net, for the first time in a century.
Claxton explaining reef net fishing to some young learners. (Submitted by Jeffrey Bosdet)
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It was daybreak on a clear summer day. Nick Claxton stood at the boat launch with other members of the WSÁNEĆ Nation. They were on Pender Island, BC, at a W̱SÁNEĆ hereditary fishing location. The winds were calm, recalled Claxton. "A perfect day for fishing."

Their ocean-going canoes were setting out onto the Salish Sea. They were ready to drop a full-size reef net, for the first time in a century.

Claxton, who is from the Tsawout Band and is an assistant professor at the University of Victoria, had been thinking about this moment for almost a decade.

The SXOLE, also known as the reef net fishery, was banned by the Canadian government in the early 1900s. The reef net fishery is a salmon fishing practice unique to the Straits Salish people.

It connected our worldview to both the ocean and the land.-Nick Claxton

Reef netting consists of suspending a net between two canoes and using a lead to funnel salmon into the net. Claxton described the many layers to the fishery, which include: securing an ideal location, giant rock anchors, cedar log buoys, intimate knowledge of tides and currents and salmon.

The SXOLE is more than the material elements that make up the fishery, explained Claxton, it "brought together our governance, our spirituality, our economy."

"It connected our worldview to both the ocean and the land."

"Our elders would say it was really the backbone of our Nation," explained Claxton.

Revitalizing the reef net

While working on his master's degree, Claxton remembered talking with people in his community about the SXOLE, and said many people asked, "why aren't we doing this anymore?"

Revitalizing the reef net became the focus of Claxton's doctoral work.

Nick Claxton, who is from the Tsawout Band, focused on reviving the SXOLE, or reef net fishing, as part of his doctoral work. (Supplied by Nick Claxton)

Traditionally, each extended family had a reef net captain or ȻWENÁLYEN. The captain, explained Claxton, "carries the responsibility for the knowledge and the practice of that reef net."

"In a Eurocentric way of thinking about captain you think of somebody who's a leader. In a WSÁNEĆ, or an Indigenous way of thinking about ȻWENÁLYEN or captain, it's somebody that has a responsibility."

Through ceremony, Claxton was named ȻWENÁLYEN, or the reef net captain for his family.

On August 9, 2014, as ȻWENÁLYEN, Claxton coordinated his community's first SXOLE in 100 years.

Claxton and his fellow fishers didn't catch any salmon that day. But it didn't matter, said Claxton.

"To me, it was very much a success."

For Claxton this is just the beginning.

He wrote about the experience in his dissertation: "It has started the process of bringing back the reef net to the W̱SÁNEĆ people, and to make it a living practice once again."