The historical abundance of salmon along the west coast of North America has been significantly reduced during the last two centuries of industrial harvest. Commercial fisheries from California to Alaska and points in between have faced clearly documented restrictions on fishing effort and collapse of specific salmon runs.1 Even while salmon runs on some large river systems remain (i.e., the Fraser and Skeena rivers), many smaller runs have all but disappeared. The life histories of many twentieth-century fisheries have been depressingly similar: initial co-existence with indigenous fisheries; emergence of large-scale industrial expansion followed by resource collapse; introduction of limited restrictions on fishing effort, which become increasingly severe, making it hard for fishing communities to survive and to reproduce themselves. Yet for nearly two millennia prior to the industrial extraction of salmon, indigenous peoples maintained active harvests of salmon, which are estimated to have been at or near median industrial harvests during the twentieth century.2
Part of the explanation for salmon stock collapses in the twentieth century resides in the different methodologies used by the indigenous and industrial fisheries. As Joseph E. Taylor comments, "aboriginal and industrial harvests appear statistically similar, but the fishery had changed radically. Indians had harvested various runs and species from March to November, but Euro-American consumers preferred the deep orange meat of chinook [spring] and sockeye. Canners quickly learned to concentrate on the runs of favored species between April and July."3 While our research substantiates Taylor's contention that "what distinguished the two fisheries was their raison d'être," our results directly contradict [End Page 441] his unsubstantiated claim that "aboriginal fishers harvested for local use, and technology, demography, and culture combined to moderate catches."4 In fact fish and fish products harvested in one area were often traded for benefit across great distances.5 In addition, as we will argue, indigenous fishing technologies were highly effective and afforded the capacity for harvesting vast quantities of fish. Furthermore, our research reveals that these technologies were regulated by traditional structures of resource management that controlled harvest pressure, and these controls were combined with active habitat management and enhancement. At the same time, salmon and other fish and food products were traded across large distances for economic benefit, albeit within a noncapitalist economy.
At the beginning of the twenty-first century, the Canadian government is turning toward more active intervention in the regulation of salmon harvests. In light of growing concerns regarding certain species of salmon (particularly coho) and an emphasis on managing to the weakest run in mixed-stock fisheries, attention is returning to types of fishing gear that were able to harvest fish in the millions without apparent ecological damage.6 Starting in the late 1990s, Canada's federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans began to explore the use of selective fishing gear—such as beach seines, floating and mobile fish traps, and fish wheels—to improve the salmon fleet's ability to avoid nontarget species. While similar in some ways to indigenous technologies, few of these projects have attempted to employ traditional First Nations gear and technology in any meaningful sense.7
In this paper we argue that a reintroduction of ecologically appropriate traditional fishing gear is one path toward truly sustainable fisheries. We emphasize how these technologies are associated with particular forms of resource management that limit and disperse harvest pressure. This is accomplished by documenting the linkage between traditional fishing gear, local ecological knowledge, and contemporary conservation potentials.8 In developing this argument, we draw upon research conducted in collaboration with fishers and elders from the Gitxaała First Nation and in particular their concept of syt güülm goot: "being of one heart." This concept underpins Gitxaała approaches to resources and how they should be used and shared. It is premised upon a community-based conception of resource use in which people and nonhumans share important reciprocal relationships of trust, respect, and—when [End Page 442] things go wrong—retribution.9 (We will return to this concept in...