San Juan Island's Salmon Bank

Why were the waters off San Juan Island so rich with salmon? The answer is in the Ice Age.

Northern Strait and Coast Salish Indians took advantage of the natural resources available in the San Juan Islands for centuries before the arrival of white explorers and settlers. One of the main commodities that drew Natives to the Islands was the abundant population of salmon. In the waters off of the southern tip of the island-- near American Camp-- there is a Salmon Bank created by glaciers melting and freezing over for thousands of years. The melting and refreezing created an underwater shelf perfect for salmon. Chinook, Coho, and Sockeye are just a few of the species of salmon that Indians fished for in the bank. Natives specialized in an entrapment style of fishing known now as reef netting. This highly efficient method of fishing inspired white settlers to exploit this valuable resource.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Hudson Bay Company established trading spots along the Salmon Bank and purchased barrel loads of salmon from local Indians. They were paid around $4, often in the form of one blanket, for every 60 fish they caught, or one barrel. The fish were salted for preservation and sold locally in the Pacific. After the Civil War, preservation techniques greatly improved and a cannery was eventually opened up in Friday Harbor at the turn of the twentieth century. By 1912, the Friday Harbor Packing Company was canning salmon around the clock. Over 2000 fish a day were processed in that facility alone. Cases of San Juan Island salmon were shipped as far east as New York and south to the Hawaiian islands. Indians were no longer involved in the process of catching the fish, in fact, they were almost completely displaced from fishing in their traditional waters by that time.

Over-fishing and environmental disasters drastically reduced the salmon population in the Salish Sea. After the 1974 Boldt decision, which reaffirm Indian fishing rights, Treaty Tribes from western Washington, including Lummi, Nooksack, Swinomish, Upper Skagit, Sauk-Suiattle, Stillaguamish, and Tulalip to name a few, came together to form the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission. The goal of the commission is to work together and restore the salmon populations.