More on Comox Harbour Fishtraps

Fishtrap stakes delineating chevron patterns in the intertidal zone of Comox Harbour. Photo credit: Greene 2010.

I posted once before some time ago on the incredible fishtrap complexes in Comox Harbour on eastern Vancouver Island, highlighting Megan Caldwell’s M.A. thesis (downloadable) on the topic, and mentioning in passing that primacy of investigation should perhaps go to Nancy Greene, who has been mapping and dating these features for about a decade.  I was glad to find the other day that Nancy Greene has a 2010 downloadable poster on the topic (link starts a 4 meg PDF)  from an academic conference: WARP, the Wetland Archaeological Research Project, which itself has a nifty new website.

These Comox Harbour fishtraps are one of the wonders of B.C. Archaeology and it is highly welcome to see some more of Greene’s reconstructions and mapping.

Source: Greene 2010.

Incredibly, Greene has now recorded over 14,000 individual stakes spread over 19 fishtrap complexes in the harbour.  The above shows just one of the plots of stakes, clearly delineating a highly-patterned and designed fishtrap – with several radiocarbon dates shown indicating a use-life of almost 1,000 years.  Or, rather, a chevron-shaped trap seems to be built incrementally onto a heart-shaped one.

Source: Greene 2010

As you can see, the stakes organize themselves into highly distinctive patterns, and Greene provides excellent schematics.  Fish milling about on the tides would encounter the “lead” and be gently directed into the traps themselves.  The heart-shaped traps are somewhat older, generally speaking – and Greene (2010) notes she has some 46 more radiocarbon dates pending.  Some traps can enclose over 1,000 square metres.  The number and extent of these in Comox Harbour shows a high degree of intensification on certain target species and an almost industrial approach to harvesting the bounty of the sea.

Now, just seeing the worn-off stakes flush with the surface of the beach it can be hard to envision what these traps truly looked like.  Interestingly – and something I don’t recall really seen connected to this question elsewhere – very similar traps were used in Alaska until the early to middle 20th century.

Historic Alaskan fish trap, with a lead perpendicular to shore. Source: Colt 1999.

The picture above shows a chevron-shaped fish trap made with pilings and fencing in Alaska, and is from an interesting 33-page report on the history of Alaskan fish traps by Steven Colt which you can download here.  The similarities to the Comox traps are striking and clearly much could be learned about the archaeological examples from the sources and citations and productivity figures given by Colt.  It does make me wonder a bit about Caldwell’s conclusion that the main target of the traps was herring.  (No doubt this has all been looked at already, I tend towards the superficial level of research here!).

Nested chevron floating fishtrap design from Alaska. Source: Colt 1999.

At some point a floating variation of these traps was developed, as illustrated above, and the basic nested chevron pattern is even more striking.

View of an intertidal Alaskan salmon trap, ca. 1900. Source: ADA

Furthermore, the Alaska Digital Archives has, as usual, some great pictures which give a sense of what the view of Comox Harbour when the stake nubs were still long poles.  Imagine 20 of those fronting the vast shell midden and village complexes of the harbour!  You can see a short movie showing use of these fixed traps, which were banned in Alaska about 1960, and the  enormous numbers of salmon being caught by them.  Of course, they were banned in British Columbia much earlier, and yet they have some undeniable advantages: by gently corralling the fish they allow selective harvesting to take place and much greater control on escapement into specific rivers.  Sometime soon I will make a post on the similarities to reef-netting, which is seeing a renaissance as a “sustainable” harvesting method for sockeye salmon and commanding a corresponding price premium.

In any case, the Comox Harbour traps are one of the most remarkable archaeological landscapes on the Northwest Coast and are deserving of the highest level of protection – they’d be a good candidate for being declared a National Historic Site, I think.  I see the Gulf of Georgia Cannery and the Mnjikaning Fish weirs are both listed, and Comox Harbour is more important than either in my opinion.   Management and conservation of these delicate and vulnerable features may be quite a challenge, given the varied uses a harbour sees – but step one, as always – is to make a good map and for years of yeoman work in this regard, much of it avocational and voluntary – Nancy Greene deserves a ton of recognition and thanks from the discipline.

Web trap in Cook's Inlet, ca. 1900. Source: ADA

10 responses to “More on Comox Harbour Fishtraps

  1. amazing map on that downloadable poster showing the features distributed throughout the harbour.


  2. This is a fascinating project that I have been following closely. And like your how-to-make-a-petroglyph blog of a couple of days ago, this project also began as an undergraduate paper.

    I am not sure if a seasoned archaeologist would have taken it on once the enormity of the task made itself known, at least not without a very large grant to get the job done. There must be a couple of hundred thousand stakes in these structures in Comox Harbour. To have mapped 5 or 10% is a major accomplishment. I look forward to more detailed information when it comes available.


  3. I wonder if this kind of thinking might usefully inform the analysis of this trap, or of any trap on the NWC when it comes down to it. Can only see the abstract but it might be of interest to other readers that have access:


  4. The level of industry achieved by the First Nations people of British Columbia is truly astounding.

    I remember looking out over this landscape about ten years ago, and wondering if it was archaeologically significant. Now I know.

    And I say “Yes” to a national historic site!


  5. The idea to commemorate this is a National Historic Site already has considerable local traction – see the Archaeology in the Estuary section below:

    and also this presentation to or of the Regional District:

    Click to access 20090119_CVProjectWatershed_CoW_presentation.pdf

    A National Historic Site adds no additional meaningful legal protection to the current protections that exist under BC legislation. However, it might open the door to some federal funding for further studies or educational signage and would raise the profile of the site. It might also get more attention from DFO and the Province when considering things like aquaculture leases in this area.


  6. Hi Dan – thanks for the comment.

    APM – agreed on the protection side, but yes if it raises the profile of the site and maybe sets the tripwire a bit for future impacts that would be good. And last I heard, which was some time ago, the National Historic Sites program was actively looking for more aboriginal sites to add since they are very, very top-heavy with historic buildings, birthplaces of judges, little houses on the prairie, and such things.


  7. I thought I would chime in on this discussion, having had this brought to my attention earlier today.

    I agree that there is a striking similarity between the Comox trap forms and those used by Euro-American fisheries in Alaska for salmon. They are also similar to herring traps still in use on the east coast:
    And ancient stone traps in SE Asia have a similar heart shape:

    And these are just two of the examples available if you start googling for both modern and ancient examples of fish traps around the world. I think the overall form of a lead line to an esentially closed catchment area will take shape if one considers tidal movement and fish behaviour when constructing a trap. I would love to hear more opinions on this matter, because while those of us working with intertidal traps know how they work in theory, it is a lot harder to access the knowledge behind how they were constructed in the past.

    That said, I do not think my conclusions about a herring fishery are voided (not to suggest that was what you were implying). What I was unable to ascertain is whether these traps were also used for salmon because of its absence from my samples (taphonomic or otherwise). I looked at remains from four areas of one site, and while my results showed an overwhelming abundance of herring, there are numerous other midden sites around Comox Harbour and up the Puntledge & Tsolum rivers that were not included in my study. I think that a broader study with samples from multiple sites around Comox Harbour is needed in order to understand the use of the traps within the context of the harbour as a whole, and not just the one site I examined.


  8. Hi Megan C, thanks for coming by. Hope you weren’t shocked to find your thesis under discussion!

    Those New England examples are shockingly similar, and for herring too. I’ve also seen very comparable examples from the Gulf of Thailand. It strikes me that while the heart-shape is almost a natural consequence of a circular enclosure with a lead into one side, the double-boxy chevron model is quite specific. I can see it as a technology with a lot of convergence as flowing water and fish habits fine tune shape into optimal configurations.

    But, yes point taken (and in your thesis too) that your study wasn’t even seeking, I don’t think, to say “all these fish traps are for catching herring”. The pictures of them pumping thousands of salmon out of superficially similar traps in Alaska did give me pause though – and surely those traps are direct descendents, probably initially at least made by the same people, as their pr-contact counterparts.

    Yes, I bet there are bags of samples already collected from all around Comox harbour. It’d be a good extension of your project to look at those.


  9. Pingback: Funter Bay History – More Fish Traps & Fish Pirates | Saveitforparts

  10. Christina Southern

    I lived in Comox years ago before much of its land was developed in the 80’s and 90’s-onward. I’m not sure if it was mentioned in the report, but the estuary had a dike built by means of a road that was built along the entire coastline in the Comox Harbour. In the early part of 1900’s this area was converted to farmland. (The road is called “Dyke Road.) Before, it often flooded. Perhaps there once were much more traps further inland at one time?


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