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The Blaine–Point Roberts salmon fisheries

The page is based on a Geography 435 essay entitled "The Blaine–Point Roberts salmon fisheries" submitted by Jack Brown to Dr. J. Scott, of the Geography Department of Western Washington University, in the Spring of 1971.

The Blaine–Point Roberts salmon fisheries are located in the northwest corner of Whatcom County, Washington. The fisheries are found along the Canadian border, and contain part of the waters of the Strait of Georgia and the waters of Boundary and Semiahmoo Bays. These waters form part of the migration route for Fraser River salmon and as a result are some of the most productive in Washington State. The fisheries have been exploited for centuries by bands of the Straits Salish Indians, and after the 1890s by white commercial fishermen.

The bordering land areas, Blaine and Point Roberts, compliment each other in the salmon fisheries. Point Roberts is a low narrow peninsula with its highest elevations at its southern extremity where high white sand cliffs rise perpendicularly from the sea. The peninsula is bordered by a narrow reef or shoal which extends outward no further than one–half a mile. It has been traditionally from the vicinity of this shoal that the greatest salmon catches have been made. The great asset of the peninsula is its bordering fishing grounds.

Point Roberts, however, has a very regular coastline which provides virtually no harborage and little protection from the open waters of the Strait of Georgia. Blaine compliments Point Roberts by providing the protected harbor. Drayton Harbor is separated from the open waters of Semiahmoo Bay by Tongue Spit. This natural breakwater has afforded protection over the years to Indian canoes, pioneer row boats, and modern fishing fleets. The extensive lowland bordering Drayton Harbor has also encouraged the development of canning plants. Blaine has been the main base from which the Point Roberts fisheries have been exploited.

The history of the Blaine–Point Roberts salmon fisheries occurs in three distinctive periods.
1. The years before 1890 when reef–netting by Strait Salish tribes dominated the fisheries.
2. From 1892 to 1934 commercial fishing by white men using fish traps to supply canning plants on Point Roberts and at Blaine.
3. After 1934, the outlawing of fish traps resulted in the rapid decline in the number of canning plants and the growth of the modern fishing fleets.

The Indian Fisheries

The Straits Salish Indians were distinguished by their annual round of subsistence activity based on the yearly runs of salmon; the most important of which was the sockeye run to the Fraser. They took these fish in reef-nets set in salt-water channels off the southern shore of Vancouver Island, in the Gulf of Georgia, and off the San Juan Islands. The most productive reef–net location was off Cannery Point on the southeastern tip of the Point Roberts Peninsula. The reef extends toward the southeast from Cannery Point and the reef–netting grounds were by far the largest in the whole area. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, locations on this reef were owned by Semiahmoo, Lummi, Saanich and even Malahat tribes of the Straits Salish.

Location of Fish Traps

No one stayed at Cannery Point the year round. However, in June, July, and August it seethed with activity. In these temporary campsites the fishermen constructed small houses, and on the beach in front of the houses ran the drying racks, about fourteen feet high, the whole length of the beach. Menzies, who kept a journal during Captain George Vancouver's 1792 survey of Semiahmoo and Boundary Bays, described the Cannery Point campsite.

Here (Point Roberts) they landed to dine near a large deserted Village capable of containing at least 400 or 500 Inhabitants, tho it was now in perfect ruins — nothing but the skeletons of the houses remained, these however were sufficient to show their general form structure and position. Each house appeared distinct and capacious of the form of an oblong square, and they were arranged in three separate rows of considerable length; the Beams consisted of huge long pieces of Timber placed in Notches on the top of supporters 14 feet from the ground, but by what mechanical power the Natives had raised these bulky beams to that height they could not conjecture. Three supporters stood at each end for the longitudinal beams, and an equal number were arranged on each side for the support of smaller cross beams in each house.
C.P. Newcombe ed., Menzies –Journal of Vancouver’s Voyages April to October, 1792. Archives of British Columbia Memoir #5. Victoria, p.60.

What Captain Vancouver and Menzies saw must have been the frames of houses or the drying racks upon which the local native people put their fish.

Fishing was the dominant subsistence activity of the Straits Salish tribes. Salmon was the most important of the fish caught, and reef–netting was the most important technique for catching salmon. In the Blaine–Point Roberts fishery there were two important reef–netting locations: a large flat–topped rock near Birch Point, belonging to the Semiahmoo people; the Cannery Point, Point Roberts, a Semiahmoo location, shared with the Saanich, Lummi, and Malahat groups. The Point Roberts reef–netting grounds were by far the largest and most productive and it was from these grounds that the bulk of the winters food supply came.

The reef extends towards the south–east from Cannery Point. Along it fishermen set their gears to form a great arc. There was room for at least 14 gears side by side, sometimes with the canoes of adjacent gears gunwale to gunwale. Beyond this arc in deeper water there was room for an indefinite number of more scattered gears. Each of these positions was a location, owned and inherited, and with its own name....
The stream of sockeyes that comes northward through Rosario Strait follows the mainland shore into Boundary Bay, then wheels to the left across the shallow flats and pours over the reef and around Point Roberts to the Fraser.
Wayne P. Suttles, "Economic Life of the Coast Salish of Haro and Rosario Straits", (Unpublished Ph.D. Dissertation, University of Washington, 1951), P–29.

The strategically located reef–nets intercepted this seasonal salmon migration.

The fish were split, spread apart with splints, and placed on racks to dry in the wind and sun. Smudge fires would be built under the racks to discourage flies. When the fish were cured, they were taken down and packed for winter storage. Such sun-dried fish would keep all winter.

The vicinity of Drayton Harbor held the permanent village sites of the Semiahmoo. From these locations they had a good harbor and protection from winter storms, yet easy access to the reef–netting grounds off Point Roberts and Birch Point. One of the earlier Semiahmoo villages was on Tongue Spit; a narrow natural tidal formation which separates Drayton Harbor from Semiahmoo Bay. This permanent camp existed before the initial contacts by European explorers. It was not shown on a 1791 map made by the Spanish explorer Jose Maria Narvaez. The houses clustered on the eastern shore of Drayton Harbor across from Tongue Spit, between the mouths of Dakota and California Creeks, were shown on the Narvaez map in 1791. These houses were associated with a fort located on the present site of Blaine. Blaine was then, as it is now, a base for exploiting the Point Robert's fisheries.

The great influx of white settlers into the territory of the Straits Salish began in the 1850s and 1860s. Reef-netting still remained an important subsistence occupation among member tribes; however, the fisheries were not free from white encroachment.

Sometime probably in the early 1880s a white man named John Waller squatted on Cannery Point because of the spring there. He is said to have cut down the drying racks and whatever of the houses were there, built a fence with them, and refused to let the Indians camp on the point. This was probably before 1886...
After being driven off Cannery Point, the reef–netters established their camp on the next point north..., later called Goodfellow Point for the white man who used the place.
Suttles, "Economic Life of the Coast Salish..." p.206.

In the early 1880s a few canneries had been established on the south arm of the Fraser River at Ladner and Steveston, and around Drayton Harbor. They began buying sockeye from local native fishermen. Thus the Indian fishermen were fishing for money as well as subsistence. This commercial fishing brought renewed interest in reef–netting among the Semiahmoo, Lummi, and Saanich.

In 1892 fish traps, constructed by white men, began creeping out into the bay north of the reef, blocking the reef-net locations. In 1894 the end came for most reef-netters when the Alaska Packers completed a continuous line of traps which cut off most of the reef. The U.S. Attorney–General filed suit for the U.S. Indians on the grounds that their treaty rights had been violated, but in 1897 the court decided in favor of the trap–men. The period of Indian reef–netters dominating the Blaine–Point Roberts fishery had come to an end. See The loss of the reef–net fishery

The Hudson Bay Company, on the Fraser River at Fort Langley, had participated in the Fraser Salmon fishing industry by buying fish from the local Indians and salting it down or drying it before packing the product in barrels for export. In addition, before the canneries and fish traps were started in 1892, a few white men had shown an interest in developing the fisheries.

In 1870 the first cannery was established on the Fraser River at Annieville. By 1882 thirteen canneries were in operation on the lower Fraser and the pack was about two hundred and fifty thousand cases of four dozen one–pound cans. This rapidly expanding market drew white men to the Point Roberts fishing grounds. The fish caught were sold to the Fraser River canneries or mild cured and transported by barrel.

Charles Jones and Mason B. Clark began a salmon barreling business at Semiahmoo, on Tongue Spit, in August 1877. This was a very small operation which sold mainly to the local market. In the late 1870s John Waller squatted on Cannery Point at Point Roberts. He cut down the Indian's drying racks and built a fence with the wood from the racks and refused to let the Indians camp on the point. He claimed the fishing rights off Cannery Point as his own. In the summer of 1879 the Pacific Fishing Company established a store and trading post at Point Roberts. In addition, the first salmon cannery in Whatcom County was built at Semiahmoo by Martin and Tarte in 1881. This cannery, located on Tongue Spit, was a crude hand-made operation. It was not a financial success and it was operated for only two seasons.

Fish Traps and Commercial Canneries 1892–1934

Commercial fishing in the Blaine–Point Roberts waters began in 1892 when D. Drysdale opened the first modern cannery in Whatcom County at Semiahmoo. Drysdale's Semiahmoo Cannery put up a fair pack in 1892 despite it being a poor year. In 1893, A.E. Wadhams began work on a similar cannery at Point Roberts, where Drysdale was in the process of establishing the first fish trap at that location: Cannery Point. Joseph Goodfellow put in a second trap the same year on the next point north, within Boundary Bay. By June of 1893 there was a great deal of legal action over the trap locations involving Wadhams', Point Roberts Canning Co., and Drysdale's Semiahmoo Cannery.
Roth, History of Whatcom County. Pp.661-662

In the 1893 season the Semiahmoo and Point Roberts canneries packed more than 100,000 cases. The pack was a record one as:

....Drysdale's biggest days harvest in 1893 was 35,000 sockeye salmon, and both canneries had to order additional cans. It was the greatest run on record, nets filled to the bursting point, salmon stacked up along the shore like huge piles of cordwood.
....(The fisheries employed) 130 white men, 140 Indians and 150 Chinese, and Joseph Goodfellow and others mild-cured more than five hundred barrels of salmon.
Roth, History of Whatcom County, p662

Diagram of a Salmon Trap

A trap is just what the name implies. It is a device with which to trap the salmon. When the salmon come in to spawn they follow the shore line, and at certain places they are more apt to be found in large numbers. So traps are built in these spots. A long row of piles will be driven from shore out into the water, often as deep as sixty feet. The diagram illustrates how, once a salmon is trapped, it is practically impossible for it to escape. The salmon usually travel with the incoming tide, so the trap is built with that in mind.
Carl I. Wick, Ocean Harvest. (Seattle: Superior Publishing Company, 1946), p.56-57.

In 1894 the Alaska Packers Association began its important role in the local fisheries when they purchased the Semiahmoo and Point Roberts canneries, sites and equipment. Wadhams and Drysdale both took stock in the large San Francisco Company in part payment. The company also bought the properties and leases of Horace Brewster, H.A. Williams, Joseph Goodfellow, Gus Holmes and a Scandinavian syndicate to obtain complete control of Point Roberts. By 1894 The Alaska Packers completed a continuous line of traps which covered most of the Point Roberts’ shoal.

By 1895, the salmon Industry began to assume an important place in the industrial activity on the Pacific Coast. The Increased importance of the Blaine-Point Roberts fisheries was particularly noticeable in the years following 1895. The Spanish–American War, the Boar War, and the Russo–Japanese War provided golden opportunities for packers to market salmon. Many new canneries were built in Blaine during the last three years of the 1890s. In 1897 the Young and Williams canning plant, the J.L. Smiley Canning Company (later Smiley and Sheldon Co.), and the Pacific Northwest Packing Company were constructed around Drayton Harbor. In 1898 the Ainsworth and Dunn Co. was completed with C.L. Wadhams in charge. In the same year the Pacific Sheet Metal Works, later sold to American Can Company, and thereafter to the Pacific American Fisheries, operated the year round making 125,OOO cans daily. By 1902 three additional plants had been added: the H.F. Allen Co., the J.W. Cook and V. Packing Co., and the George and Barker Co. at Point Roberts. In 1905, of the twenty–four fish canneries on Puget Sound two were located at Point Roberts and six were at Blaine or Semiahmoo. To meet this rapid expansion the Blaine canneries had begun employing women in 1897 to replace the Chinese, the supply of whom was scarcely adequate for the growth of the industry.

The inevitable result of such rapid expansion was overdevelopment. Competition led to overproduction in the first few years of the twentieth century, and this was reflected in the falling prices for Sockeye salmon. The number of operating plants in the Pacific Northwest decreased due to a movement for the consolidation of the canneries in that area. The number of canning operations at Blaine and Point Roberts declined from eight in 1905 to six in 1918.

In 1905, the eight canning companies which dominated the Blaine–Point Roberts fishery relied primarily on their own fish traps to provide a regular supply of salmon. Until 1917 there was a gradual increase in canned–salmon production at the Blaine canneries. This was in keeping with the steady development of the remainder of North America, and reflected the lack of conservation regulations. 1917 marked the beginning of decline in the supply of salmon. This was the result of the failure of the 1913 Sockeye run.

In that year the Canadian Northern Hallway was being constructed through the Fraser Canyon along the banks of the river up which the salmon had to pass to their spawning grounds.... Part way through the canyon there existed a small sheltered bay in which the fish were able to rest and recover their strength for the final passage of the canyon. In 1913 rock blasting operations on the roadway of the Canadian Northern Railway resulted in a rock slide which filled this sheltered bay and deprived the salmon of their resting place. It was unfortunate that this slide occurred shortly before the sockeye run....and millions of fish died in the lower part of the River without spawning.
Carrothers. The Fishing Industry of British Columbia. Unpublished Manuscript, Provincial Museum, Victoria, 1937, p.25 and 33.

The tragedy of 1913 resulted in the smaller run of 1917, which was overfished the consequence being the 1921 sockeye pack was even smaller.

The Fraser River no longer enjoyed its big annual run and even the smaller years showed a marked decline as compared to previous periods. Apparently the lack of the large run tended to lead to over-fishing in the small-run years. The Blaine-Point Roberts fishery relied directly on the success of the Fraser River runs and local operations suffered as a result of the decline.

The danger to the existence of the Fraser River sockeye salmon from overfishing was repeatedly pointed out, and this led to conservation legislation. Prior to 1921 regulation of the salmon fishery was undertaken directly by the legislature of the state of Washington. Details of the development of regulations during this period may be summarized as:

The principal techniques of regulation consisted of limited time closures; progressively more stringent limitations on fixed gear of various types; and restrictions on the use of salmon fishing gear of any type in the rivers.
James A. Crutchfield, and Giulio Pontecorvo. The Pacific Salmon Fisheries. (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins Pres 1969), p. 132.

In 1921 the Washington State Department of Fisheries was created to undertake the task of drawing up the regulations governing the fisheries of the state. The Department undertook to increase the salmon runs by increasing the number of hatcheries and by regulating greater escapement to maintain or increase natural propagation. The latter was strongly opposed by canning companies and fish trap operators especially in the Blaine-Point Roberts area.

In the period before 1934, the catch by seines, gill nets, and reef–nets provided only a fraction of the total pack. The whole Northwest fishery was dominated by the fish trap operators,(see figure 3) Opposition began to grow against the use of fish traps by the large companies. The method required and conferred a special right of fishery at a preferred location resulting in the exclusion of all others.

diagram of a gill net

Gill Nets are usually set in the muddy water that comes from the rivers. The fish cannot see the net in the waves and currents that keep stirring clouds of sediment from the miles and miles of flats. When they swim into the net, their heads go through the mesh as far as the gills, but a five and one–half inch mesh will not allow a salmon to go through very far. When the quarry tries to back out of the net, his gill–covers act much as the barb on a hook. The harder he tries to escape the more securely he becomes fastened, since the webbing gets under his gill–covers. This is the reason they are called gill nets.
Adapted from: Carl I. Wick, Ocean Harvest. (Seattle. Superior Publishing Company, 1946), p.42

1934 was a decisive year for the fishing industry. Through Initiative 77 and a referendum all fixed gear (traps, fish wheels, and set nets) were eliminated from the salmon fishery of Washington State. The era of fish traps controlled by the canning companies came to an end.

Commercial Canneries and Fishing Fleets 1935–1971

Beginning in 1935 seiners, gill net boats, and reef-nets were the only legal way to fish commercially in the Blaine–Point Roberts fishery. Proponents of Initiative 77 had argued that it would allow everyone in the state to fish for salmon, thereby giving employment to more than 10,000 additional citizens of the state. The result was the creation of the modern fishing fleets operating out of Blaine and Bellingham harbors. Before 193 only thirty to forty boats operated in Blaine–Point Roberts waters but today about 150 boats fish the waters from Lummi Island to Point Roberts and the number reaches over 300 near the end of the season when the fish swim towards the Fraser.

In 1937 the treaty was ratified which established the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission. This body along with the legislature of the state of Washington established a series of regulations designed specifically to reduce economic efficiency as a means of protecting salmon stocks or having important secondary effects of this nature. These regulations completely disrupted the pattern of the Blaine–Point Roberts fishery as mobile gear made its way into the areas formerly dominated by traps, resulting in a discontinuity in catch. The eventual result was the closure of three of the four remaining canneries in Blaine and Point Roberts. The Alaska Packers Association being the only remaining company.

Diagram of a Purse Seine

Purse Seines are long, deep nets of synthetic fibers or cotton which are set from a fishing boat around a school of salmon which has been detected close to the surface. The bottom of the net is closed by a power winch hauling in on a line which runs through rings along the lower edge of the seine, thus "pursing" the net and giving the method its name. This is fishing by encirclement.
Adapted from: The Pacific Fisherman's Canned .Fish Hand–i–Book. (San Francisco: Millar Freeman Publications, I960), Oct., P.17

The period from 1935 to 1971 has been distinguished by a number of factors:
1. the most noticeable being the marked decrease in the number of canneries and the significant increase in the size of the fishing fleet.
2. The increase in international regulations regarding: the equal division of the catch between Canadian and American fishermen, the delineation of more and more areas subject to closure, the limitation of fishing time to provide for adequate escapement, and the restrictions on types of gear permitted.

Diagram of a reef net

The Reef–net diagram sketched above shows how nylon ropes and netting, electric winches and Polaroid glasses with their reflection–cancelling properties have made a modern, productive form of fishing out of the ancient Indian method. This form of fishing is believed to be unique to Puget Sound waters, and to be practiced nowhere else in the world. Where the Indians originally set their gear only from the crest of actual reefs, modern fishermen rig their side lines and floor lines to serve as artificial reefs in favorable locations where the migrating salmon strike in along a shore.
Adapted from – The Pacific Fisherman. (San Francisco: Millar Freeman Publications, 1966), January, p.15.

3. The continued decline in salmon stocks due to a variety of factors that influence the abundance of salmon: fishing intensity, types of fishing gear used, siltation of rivers as a result of poor logging and farming practices, pollution from municipal and industrial abuse of river waters, loss of spawning streams, and a variety of others. The decline in the total catch per license issued is another indicator of declining productivity.


The development of the Blaine-Point Roberts fisheries falls into three distinct periods.
1. The period before 1892 when the shoals bordering Point Roberts were fished by reef–netters of the Straits Salish tribes. The Semiahmoo, Lummi, Saanich and Malahat Indians shared locations on Point Roberts, and the salmon which were caught and dried formed the bulk of their winters food supply.
2. 1892 to 1934 was the era of commercial fishing by white men using fish traps to supply the canning plants on Point Roberts and at Blaine. The period was also marked by some of the largest salmon packs. However, 1917 was the beginning of the continued decline in salmon stocks.
3. In 1934 fish traps were outlawed through initiative and referendum. It was the beginning of a new era of mobile fishing fleets, irregular salmon catches, and the closure of all the local canneries except the Alaska Packers Association plant at Semiahmoo.

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