The Non-GMO Project is based in Bellingham, Washington, on the ancestral homelands of the Coast Salish tribes. Indigenous people have fished and stewarded salmon for thousands of years in this region. Today, salmon face a daunting combination of threats — habitat loss, climate change and disease from farmed fish. And when GMO salmon entered the marketplace in 2017, a new threat was added. A coalition of environmental groups argued that fast-growing genetically modified salmon could devastate wild fish in the event of contamination or escape.
AquaBounty, the company behind GMO salmon, has marketed its product as a sustainable solution to declining salmon populations. At the Non-GMO Project, we believe there are better tools with which to rebuild salmon health, tools that trace back to the first people to inhabit these lands. And we aren’t the only ones who think so.
A study released in 2021 outlines several Indigenous fishing techniques as promising pathways to sustainable fisheries and healthy fishing communities. These techniques have evolved through centuries of observation, refinement and expertise. In recognition of Native American Heritage Month, here are five traditional salmon fishing practices whose roots in the distant past could very well hold the key to salmon’s future.
Fish traps — Fish traps are built at the mouth of a river, where a carefully-designed fence-like structure leads fish into a maze of chambers at high tide. When the tide goes out, the salmon are stranded in a living well — still submerged in water but unable to escape. Fishers can collect the harvest they need, then remove fencing to free the rest of the fish.
Weirs — A weir has a similar fence-like look, but its design and placement differ from a fish trap. Weirs run directly across a river, trapping migrating salmon. Traditionally, weirs were made from cedar and other locally-sourced materials. Weirs may appear simple, but they must be properly managed by local experts. A poorly managed weir has the potential to block the upriver migration of adult fish, preventing spawning and wiping out the entire population.
Dip net — Dip nets are a very ancient method of salmon fishing which, according to researchers, “remains vibrant to this day despite years of harassment and arrest at the hands of fisheries officers during the twentieth century.” Dip net fishing combines specialized equipment and knowledge with inherited, inter-generational fishing grounds and profound physical strength. Fishermen stand on platforms constructed above a river where salmon are known to migrate. Dip nets are wide-mouth nets on long poles, which the fishermen throw upstream and allow to be pulled underwater by the current. Experienced fishers can feel salmon bump into the net from their perch above.
Reef nets — Reef net fishing was developed and perfected by the Coast Salish peoples to catch salmon in marine waters as they return to the Fraser River. Nets are suspended between two boats, traditionally canoes, and anchored to huge underwater rocks. Nets are disguised with seaweed fronds or grasses to look like a tidal inlet, where salmon would generally be safe from predators such as orcas. Through selective harvesting, reef net fisheries can catch thousands of salmon each day without harming non-target or endangered species.
Fish wheels — A fish wheel is a large wheel, half-submerged in a migratory river, resembling an aquatic Ferris wheel. The river’s current powers the wheel’s motion, driving baskets that scoop salmon out of the river and divert them to underwater holding areas without harming them. Salmon remain in flowing river water until they are claimed and harvested.
The practices highlighted here share crucial traits and offer profound benefits. For example, they favor location-specific, local management systems based on a deep understanding of fish populations and ecosystems. Also, nearly all these techniques are “terminal fisheries,” operating in river systems where salmon return to spawn. Terminal fisheries support selective harvesting and protect non-target organisms.
Traditional Indigenous technologies are even attracting adherents outside the commercial fishing industry. Biologists and conservationists look to Indigenous systems to catch and release fish so they can be tagged or assessed without harm.
A common criticism of biotechnology as the solution to the world’s ills is that its “solutions” tend to be short-sighted. They are highly lucrative for a small group of well-heeled stakeholders while doing nothing to dismantle the systems that gave rise to the climate crisis. If anything, GMOs increase the separation between our food system and the natural world and heighten the post-colonial practice of privatization that led us here.
GMO salmon is no different.
* Source: BioScience, Volume 71, Issue 2, February 2021, Pages 186–204, https://doi.org/10.1093/biosci/biaa144.