The research of tens of thousands of wooden stakes poking up from British Columbia’s shoreline has solved a Canadian underwater mystery and smashed a long-held stereotype of Canada’s First Nation people.
At the lowest tides, on Canada’s Comox estuary, the nubs of more than 150,000 wooden stakes are spread out across the inter-tidal zone. They are the remnants of hundreds of ancient fish traps. It’s now believed that these traps provided food security for an estimated 10,000-12,000 K’ómoks People, the traditional inhabitants of the bountiful, mountain-fringed Comox Valley, which is located on the east side of Vancouver Island, on the edge of the Salish Sea.
The stakes, which are thumb-sized in diameter in the shallows, and increase to the size of small tree trunks in deeper water, are visible from busy shore-side roads, no-one thought much about them. Even the Elders of the K’ómoks People didn’t remember what they were for.
In 2002, Nancy Greene, then an undergraduate anthropology student, began researching the stakes for her senior thesis. Working with a team of volunteers, she spent months recording the locations of 13,602 exposed tips of Douglas fir and western red cedar stakes.
When she plotted the stakes’ locations, the results were astounding. The stakes formed the most extensive and sophisticated indigenous fishing operations ever found.
Greene realised that the 150,000 to 200,000 stakes, representing more than 300 fish traps. Radiocarbon dating placed the ages of the stakes from 1,300 years old to 100 years old. However, the most impressive thing about the system is the precision of the designs.
The traps are based on a deep knowledge of fish behaviour, and the region’s large tidal range. They are laid out in two styles; one heart-shaped and one chevron-shaped. The traps were lined with removable woven-wood panels that let the water flow through, but not the fish. During a rising tide, the fish followed the centreline of the trap, which mimicked the shoreline they’d naturally follow, through an entrance and into the enclosure. When the tide receded; the fish inside the trap were stranded in shallow pools. Depending on the trap style, and the season, the fishermen/stewards of the traps could target either herring or salmon. They could also manage how many salmon went on to spawn in the local creek systems, thus maintaining a balance between community food needs, and the maintenance of the fish stocks. If a particular fish “run” looked weak, they could opt not to fish it at all.
So, how did such an elegant and sustainable fishing technology fall into forgotten disuse?
The arrival of explorers, traders, and settlers, mainly from Europe, brought disease, which decimated the population. The, the new arrivals enacted laws to forcibly separate indigenous people from their culture, their land, and the fish. When 80 to 90% of the population died of disease, the First Nation people lost their knowledge and the intricate skills and protocols that made their technologies work. To make matters worse, the Indian Act of 1876 forcibly moved people to reserves, and cultural practices were outlawed. First Nations’ people lost physical access to their fish traps and their sea gardens. When they lost agency over their land, they lost part of their identity.
In the Gulf Islands, also in British Columbia, the Hul’q’umi’num and W̱SÁNEĆ People stacked rocks to build low walls running parallel to the shore. These walls were designed to trap silt, which changed the slope of the beach to create “sea gardens”; large, flat tidal areas that, once cleared of large rocks, were carefully tended to create the ideal habitat for clams, crab, sea cucumbers, rockfish, octopus, whelks and other marine life.
In the winding inlets and islets of the Broughton Archipelago Provincial Park, the technology changed again. Here, the Kwakwaka’wakw People built monumental rock walls, large enough to be seen from space, to create the ideal water depth to encourage clam growth in the shallow bays. They also built the rock walls into spiral-shaped gardens that could take advantage of the region’s unique swirling currents.
Still further north, in the inner waterways and islands that make up part of Heiltsuk territory, they built stone-walled sea/clam gardens (called λápac̓i) and a wide variety of stone fish traps (called Ckvá). They were built so solidly that they wouldn’t fall apart by actions of a river, or the tide.
The abundance of long-abandoned sea gardens found on British Columbia’s coast is staggering. Research shows that the terraced gardens, which indigenous people have been building for at least 5,000 years, are 150 to 300% more productive than wild beaches in producing littleneck and butter clams, as well as other marine organisms. These techniques, once used to steward the gardens, have a lot to teach us. Today’s National park scientists could have attempted to reverse-engineer the sea gardens using science alone. Instead, they opted to reinstate traditional management and stewardship practices of the local tribes.
The moment indigenous people returned to their sea gardens, and fish traps, was the moment the technology stopped being about the past, and became about the future. In Heiltsuk territory, the fish traps are starting to support local tourism and there are plans to integrate traditional fishing methods more widely into community life.
This is a heart-warming story of what research and recognition, combined with vision and integrity, can do for a community and, indeed, for all of us.