In the shallow coastal waters along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, low tide brings a remarkable sight. When the tides are
In the shallow coastal waters along the eastern shore of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, low tide brings a remarkable sight. When the tides are out and the tidelands of Comox Bay are revealed, a vast field of carefully carved and strategically implanted wooden stakes suddenly rises above the water surface. These are the remains of a complex of fish traps , some quite ancient and some more modern, that were constructed by the indigenous K’ómoks First Nation people along the coastline of their traditional lands.
At its peak performance, this network of K’ómoks fish traps could have captured fish by the thousands. The trap system was both highly productive and fully sustainable, which is why the K’ómoks created it in the first millennium and continued to use it for more than 1,000 years.
K’ómoks First Nation people’s fish traps and fishing weirs in and around Vancouver Island. (OpenStreetMap via ArcGIS / Hakai Magazine )
First Nation Fish Traps Deciphered by Nancy Greene’s Team
For a long time, it seemed that knowledge about what the wooden stakes represented had been forgotten. Modern K’ómoks saw them all the time, and knew they had something to do with fishing. But they didn’t know much about the scale or style of fishing their ancestors had practiced.
This situation changed starting in the early 2000s, thanks to the efforts of a local undergraduate anthropology student named Nancy Greene. As a 20-plus-year resident of the Comox Valley region, the Malaspina College (now Vancouver Island University) senior had seen the stakes many times like everyone else and was curious to find out more about their purpose and origin.
Recruiting a team of volunteers to help her, Greene spent many hours out on the K’ómoks First Nation tidelands, inspecting the wooden stakes and evaluating their designs and shapes. She also spoke to many K’ómoks elders about them, to see if they could offer more information about their makers and their history.
Greene’s determination to find out the truth about the stakes set her off on a years-long quest, which continued past her school days and into her career as a professional archaeologist working in the Comox Valley.
One K’ómoks elder told her a story she’d first heard from her grandmother, about how the stakes were arranged to make weirs (a type of fish trap) . The woman told her granddaughter that each K’ómoks family in pre-European contact times was responsible for their own individual weir.
Using this knowledge, plus her own intuition, to guide her studies, Greene and her colleagues eventually figured out the shapes of the fish traps that had been constructed from the wooden stakes. It was then they realized the truth about what the ancient K’ómoks had done, which was to create the largest ancient fish trap system found anywhere in North America, and possibly anywhere in the world.
Nancy Greene studying the massive fish trap complex in Comox Harbor on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. (Nancy Greene / Hakai Magazine )
A Breathtaking Display of Engineering Genius
When fully visible at low tide, the scale of the K’ómoks First Nation fish trap array is breathtaking. The wooden stakes the K’ómoks whittled from Douglas fir trees and western red cedars and deployed in the shallow wetlands near their homeland number somewhere between 150,000 and 200,000, which would have been enough to create at least 300 separate traps covering several acres of tidelands.
Radiocarbon dating results show the oldest traps were built in the eight century AD, while the youngest were installed in the 19 th century. The latter were presumably constructed just before the K’ómoks people were removed from their ancestral lands, following the passage of the Canadian Indian Act of 1876.
This depopulation measure banished First Nations peoples to reservations and outlawed traditional cultural and all their governing practices. In this case, the Canadian government’s actions destroyed a cultural practice that may have once fed and sustained as many as 10,000 to 12,000 K’ómoks people.
As impressive as the scale of the fish traps were, their design was just as awe-inspiring. The complex, heart-shaped and chevron-shaped traps were lined with woven, removable wooden panels that featured spaces big enough for water to flow through but too narrow for fish to swim through. The meandering lines of the traps mimicked the shape of the area’s natural shoreline, which encouraged fish to follow them and enter the larger trap enclosure. When the tide receded and the water drained away, the fish would be left behind trapped in shallow pools that could easily be reached on foot.
K’ómoks fishers could target either salmon or herring , depending on the season. They could also control the size of each harvest, to ensure natural fish populations would remain plentiful. They undoubtedly monitored salmon runs and herring movements closely, to make sure they had up-to-date data on fish populations and their fluctuations.
While this was an industrial-sized fishing operation, the K’ómoks people weren’t catching fish to sell on an international market. They were catching what they needed to survive and no more, which means fish stocks were never seriously threatened by irresponsible overfishing.
Two type of fish traps used by the K’ómoks First Nation people. (David McGee and Mercedes Minck / Hakai Magazine )
Surveying the Fishing Cultures of Ancient British Columbia
Cory Frank is the manager of the K’ómoks Guardian Watchmen, a group that supervises sustainable practices for the coastal nation. Frank grew up looking at the mysterious wooden stakes in the water on a daily basis and he is delighted by what Greene and her colleagues have uncovered about ancient K’ómoks fishing practices. “My ancestors were amazing engineers ,” he marveled.
But they weren’t the only ones. Archaeologists have discovered the remains of fantastic and ingenious fishing aquaculture systems created by other First Nations’ peoples who resided in the area of modern British Columbia.
On the Gulf Islands, which can be found in the waters of the Salish Sea between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia, the Hul’q’umi’num and W̱SÁNEĆ people built low rock walls just off the beaches, running parallel to the shoreline. These walls were designed to trap silt brought in by the tides, to make “sea gardens,” where creatures like clams, crabs, sea cucumbers, octopus, and rockfish could be tended and harvested in controlled conditions.
On British Columbia’s Broughton Archipelago, the Kwakwaka’wakw people built huge rock walls to increase water depth in their shallow bays, so that clams could be grown and harvested more easily there. On offshore islands and along British Columbia’s central coast, the Heiltsuk people constructed stone-walled clam gardens and fish traps, which were built according to various designs depending on whether they were installed on tideland, in creeks, or at the mouth of a river.
The indigenous peoples of ancient British Columbia adapted to their environments in unique ways. Many relied largely on marine life to survive, but their methods for taking advantage of the sea’s bounty varied based on local ecological conditions.
One of the small bays where the K’ómoks First Nation people trap fish today. ( KomoksFirstNation)
The Destruction of a Culture is Being Reversed
It seems incredible to realize that knowledge of this astoundingly effective and efficient fishing system had been all but lost to modern K’ómoks people. But that was an outgrowth of the Canadian First Nations peoples’ 19 th-century contacts with white European settlers, who arrived from the east carrying their germs, their greed, and their racist hostility with them in all too many cases.
Deidre Cullon, an archaeologist from Vancouver Island University, provided Hakai Magazine with details about the events that decimated native populations in British Columbia.
“The smallpox epidemic of 1862 claimed the lives of half the Indigenous people on the coast of British Columbia,” she explained. “In that catastrophe, not only were keepers of knowledge lost; entire communities were abandoned. Lost, too, was the need for a high-production fishery—there were far fewer mouths to feed.”
“And then, right on the heels of that, the Canadian government chose to support commercial fishing for canneries,” Cullon continued. “The government made the traps illegal and sent their fisheries officers to destroy them.”
Next came the Indian Act of 1876, which pushed First Nations people off their traditional lands and removed indigenous children from their families. Young K’ómoks people were sent to boarding schools, where in addition to frequently experiencing horrific abuse they were also prevented from learning their native languages, traditions, and cultures. K’ómoks parents were forbidden to teach their kids about the old ways, and eventually the memory of the fish trap system and what it represented was lost.
Only now, 150 years later, are archaeologists and First Nations historians finally rediscovering the glorious accomplishment of the K’ómoks and the many other indigenous people who once occupied all of British Columbia. Scientists, in cooperation with modern First Nations people who’ve returned to reclaim their native lands, are now attempting to reverse-engineer some of the old fishing and aquacultural systems. Not only were these systems ecologically sustainable, but they were also an essential part of North American indigenous culture and identity, which makes them incredibly valuable to First Nations people living today.
Top image: These wooden stakes sticking out of the water were part of an ancient K’ómoks First Nation people tideland fish trap system . Source: Nancy Greene / ComoxValleyNews
By Nathan Falde