Salmon & Lummi Fishing Rights

University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections, Full View of Lummi Native American Fishing Canoe with Reef Net, Bellingham, WA, approximately 1930-1933.

Prior to European contact the Coast Salish people had unlimited access to fishing resources within the San Juan Archipelago and surrounding straits. They practiced reefnet fishing which used two canoes anchored in the water that held a large submerged net between them at the lip of an artificial reef. The reef, made from nettle bushes and wild grasses, passively funnels fish over the net and into canoes with the assistance of a smaller net.  After the fish are collected in the canoes, the fishers hand sort the haul. This is a sustainable fishing practice because unwanted bycatch is released unharmed back into the sea. Specific reef netting areas were linked to kinship groups and plentiful runs of sockeye salmon allowed everyone to share in the abundance. Salmon reefnet fishing is one example of the rich indigenous culture linked to the Pacific Northwest coastal region.  

In the 1850s Coast Salish communities were forced to give up millions of acres of traditional lands during treaty negotiations that relocated many to reservations in North America reservations and reserves in Canada.  On the U.S. side of Coast Salish territory, tribal leaders maintained rights to their fishing and hunting cultural traditions and Coast Salish people were recognized as some of the most skilled traditional fishers in the world by early commercial operators. Indigenous fishing practices fit nicely into the industry’s early needs and Native communities within the Puget Sound regions, especially the Lummi Nation, provided labor for the commercial fishing industry. As independent laborers, Lummi fishers were able to increase their haul above subsistence needs while working to supply commercial canneries.   

By the late 1800s, Euro-American entrepreneurs increasingly challenged the Lummi Tribe’s control of their fishing resource with the introduction of new fishing practices. The use of the “fish trap,” a long lead net that turns runs of fish into a trap where they can be removed, reduced the need for independent commercial fishers. The traps were most effective in reefnet locations, and when placed in front of Native gears, it rendered them ineffectual. As a result, the Lummi became effectively excluded from participation in the industry. The Lummi people did not passively accept the appropriation of the fishery by canneries, and sought assistance from the federal government to preserve the fishing rights protected by their treaty and in 1897 they took their claim to court.  Government policy during this time focused on assimilation and the Bureau of Indian Affairs discouraged traditional economic activities like fishing for more civilized practices such as farming.  The local Indian agent was tasked with turning the indigenous population into farmers and did not assist with exerting their fishing rights, and Native fishers were relegated to subsistence fishing on the reservation. 

When Native people were the most cost-effective means of procuring salmon they were included in commercial practices, but once technology changed they were denied access. In subsequent years fishing managers restricted reefnet fishing to protect salmon runs and Native fishers often ignored the restrictions, were arrested, and argued that treaties gave them the right to fish Puget Sound waters. In the 1960s, Native communities engaged in nonviolent activism to regain their rights and 1973, with the support of the federal government they sued the State of Washington.  Federal district court justice George Boldt issued a ruling on United States v. Washington in 1974. The treaty contains the language, “The right of taking fish, at all usual and accustomed grounds and stations, is further secured to said Indians, in common with all citizens of the territory.”  Boldt interpreted the term “in-common” to mean the tribes were entitled to 50 percent of the harvestable catch and he ruled that tribes had the right to manage their fishing independent of state laws and regulations. The Boldt decision had a lasting impact because it reinforced the notion of tribal sovereignty and validated the legal language within treaties. After the ruling was issued, the tribes were given a legal right to co-manage the Puget Sound fishing industry, which had been devastated by development and logging.  Further examination of the decision shows that the state has a legal obligation to protect fish habitat to ensure tribal fishing rights persist, and this has resulted in a tribal voice on new and persisting land-use issues. 


Boxberger, Daniel L. “Ethnicity and labor in the Puget Sound fishing industry, 1880-1935.” Ethnology 33, no. 2 (1994): 179-191.

Cudmore, Alyssa A. “Shifting Baselines in the Fishing Industry of the Lummi Nation: A Study of Declining Expectations.” (2009). 

Norman, Emma S. “Finding common ground: Negotiating downstream rights to harvest with upstream responsibilities to protect—Dairies, berries, and shellfish in the Salish Sea.” Global Environmental Politics 19, no. 3 (2019): 77-97.

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