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