Weir on the River Koeye

Building Koeye Weir. Photo by Grant Callegari via indiegogo.

Building Koeye Weir. Photo by Grant Callegari via indiegogo.

There’s a pretty amazing new construction on the  on the Koeye River (pronounced roughly “kwaay”) on the central coast of B.C. (map).  A team has built a traditional style wooden-weir across the river, and are using it for fishery management – trapping, counting, measuring, and gently releasing salmon at the end (and start) of their life cycle. The construction has been documented at the willatlas.com blog, including some amazing photos, and there are posts on the Hakai Beach Institute blog as well. Even better, there is a short documentary.  This is actually is a teaser for a longer documentary, which is in the fund-raising stage, and I don’t mind using this blog as a platform to bring this really great project to people’s attention.  You can see their fundraising page here.

Building Koeye Weir. Photo by Grant Callegari via indiegogo.

Building Koeye Weir, note trap and fishing structure in middle of frame. Photo by Grant Callegari via indiegogo.

The idea of the weir is simple. Such devices are known worldwide. The weir blocks the upstream migration of the salmon, or, more accurately, it slows them down and forces them to pass through a narrow gap in the middle.  At the gap, they enter a holding pen or box, as you can see in the above picture.   In the past, there might be a basket trap there, or some sort of holding pen from which they could be netted or harpooned.  This allowed for close, stream-specific monitoring of the salmon numbers and selective, sustainable harvesting by species, size, sex, etc. Nowadays, that’s where the Koeye fish will be measured and sent on their way.

As the fundraiser web page says:

Fish weirs, cedar fences which were built across rivers for thousands of years, were traditionally used by First Nations to selectively harvest salmon as they returned to spawn each year. However, until the spring of 2013 the practice had been dormant in the Heiltsuk community of Bella Bella for more than one hundred years. The documentary follows our crew through the ups and downs of a season as we take the weir project from an idea to a reality, revitalizing the age-old practice of weir-building to provide the first ever estimates of sockeye salmon returns to the Koeye River. Through this work and other initiatives, the Heiltsuk are asserting their rights as the traditional stewards of their territory, building on centuries of cultural knowledge to create a sustainable future for their community and the entire Central Coast.

Rather than sucking up entire runs of salmon with seine boats at rivermouths, or heavy interception as they make their way towards the rivers, the weir system allows monitoring of actual fish which are actually returning.  There is an audio interview with William Housty from Qqs via the CBC which does a good job of outlining it’s use for fisheries management.  It’s certainly easier on the eye than the DFO’s Babine counting fence.

Koeye fish weir fence panel under construction. Source: willatlas.com

Koeye fish weir fence panel under construction. Source: willatlas.com

It’s really interesting to see how they went about building this structure.  The carpentry was masterminded by Grant Callegari, while the basic plan was traditional to the Heiltsuk Nation, as interpreted by Will Atlas of Qqs Society and Jess Housty of the Heiltsuk Nation.

Positioning tripods at Koeye.  Screenshot from vimeo.com

Positioning tripods at Koeye. Screenshot from vimeo.com

A series of large tripods are built form alder wood, with one long leg downstream to brace against the current.  You can view plans for the weir here, if you decide to make your own.

Positioning fence onto weir at Koeye River.  Screenshot from vimeo.com

Positioning fence onto weir at Koeye River. Screenshot from vimeo.com

A removable set of about 20 panels is then placed upstream of these.  Water pressure helps hold them in place. It looks like the tripods are removable as well, raising the interesting idea that the entire structure could be taken out over winter.  Certainly with the panels removed it would allow free flow of water and fish.

Haida fish weir in Gwaai Haanas National Park Reserve.

Ancient Haida fish weir in Gwaai Haanas National Park Reserve.

A lot of older examples of these I have seen have stakes pounded right into substrate, often clays which have excellent holding properties and also act to preserve the stakes.  Above is a picture of a several thousand year old weir in Haida Gwaii, or look here for a 19th century example on the Babine River. There are hundreds of these known along the NW Coast, with the oldest currently known examples being about 5 to 6,000 years old.  These structures were banned coast-wide in the early historic period.  The settler government decided they must be bad for the salmon runs since they apparently blocked the streams, not noticing that the salmon, and people, seemed to be doing just fine. The law is better seen as a naked move to wrest control of the lucrative salmon fishery away from First Nations.  There is a rather good book on this subject by Douglas Harris: Fish, Law and Colonialism.

Cowichan fish weir reconstruction.  Photo by flickr user klahowya.

Cowichan fish weir reconstruction. Note the “door flaps” in the weir. Photo by flickr user klahowya.

It’s not the first weir reconstruction I have heard of.  There’s this one on the Cowichan River, for example, and an Alaskan basket trap has been reconstructed as well.  I’ve posted before on fish traps and weirs: Oregon; Comox 1, 2; and even once before on Heiltsuk fishtraps.

As far as I can tell, the actual construction of the weir was funded or enabled by Qqs, by the Hakai Beach Institute, and by Raincoast. (Disclosure, I have a Hakai affiliation myself).

It’s a great project.  As Eric Peterson notes on his blog, “Science, engineering, art, culture, history, traditional ecological knowledge, community engagement, all wrapped up seamlessly in this wonderful project.”

The documentary film would be an additional wonderful resource and would really help get the message out and be super-useful for teaching as well, so I encourage people to think about tossing them a few bucks.

Releasing salmon at the Koeye River Weir.  Source: willatlas.com

Releasing salmon at the Koeye River Weir. Source: willatlas.com

7 responses to “Weir on the River Koeye

  1. Richard Wisecarver

    They were still being used on the Johnson river on the lower Kuskokwim in Alaska in the 1970’s. Guiding weirs were still being used on the lower Yukon with removable traps. This is probably still going on. They were being used to catch whites fish and pike on the Johnson and Burbot, pike, late salmon and white fish on the Yukon. Alaska fish and game cares little about these fish. Black fish are caught in weirs and traps thru out the Yukon/Kuskokwim delta.

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  2. Quentin: Great post. We hope to do some reconstructions on tributaries with Chehalis and Quinault Elders based on 500 trap stakes, dating to about 700 years ago, that we recently re-hydrated and stabilized with polyethylene glycol (PEG) after they were “stabilized” through slow drying–here’s our report for the Quinault samples: https://www.dropbox.com/s/6gpdt4qpxon6hkg/FISH%20WEIR%20RESTORATION–QUINAULT%20INDIAN%20NATION–DRAFT%20%20DC%2010-16-13_KH_10-17-13.docx .

    As more and more ancient fish traps are found and sampled, be sure to keep them wet and stabilize them with a PEG treatment–NOT SLOW DRYING–to avoid having to re-hydrate and re-constitute them for stabilization (at least it partially worked). We would be happy to help anyone who needs to learn this easy process to avoid what took us over a year to semi-restore….for any assistance e-mail me at dcroes@pnwas.org. Great presentation and projects–I will share with Chehalis and Quinault Nations. Thanks, and hope all doing well at UVic, Dale

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  3. Hi Dale, Richard, thanks for your comments.

    Dale, thanks for the offer to help with this kind of specialized wood conservation too. While people are thinking about these things, a reminder too that it is optimal to take a 14C sample shaved from the outside of the stake since in most cases, especially round stakes, this will provide a much better approximation of the age of death of the wood, which should be a proxy for the cultural use of the plant. I’ve seen a number of cases where people take a cross-section (cookie) of the stake and that adds decades of mixing to the resultant date.

    I see someone recently donated $1,000 to the Koeye documentary project linked above so I’m just going to smugly be taking silent credit for that.

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  4. Wonderful project and that this story is being widely shared.

    For at least the past two years, a roughly similar management weir has been installed to monitor sockeye in Henderson Lake in Barkley Sound by Uchucklesaht First Nation.

    the design looks similar based on the photo in this news story:
    http://www.hashilthsa.com/news/2013-07-05/monitoring-henderson-lake-sockeye

    Its further relevant that Henderson Lake is the “Rainiest Place in North America” http://wmo.asu.edu/north-america-greatest-average-annual-precipitation

    and so… when rain and high tides combined this past June, the weir (which they call a fence) “was washed away completely” although the plan was to rebuild it http://www.uchucklesaht.ca/cms/wpattachments/wpID189atID217.pdf

    and the replacement appears to be have involved heavier equipment:
    http://www.uchucklesaht.ca/cms/wpattachments/wpID189atID236.pdf

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  5. Pingback: Heiltsuk First Nation uncovers grizzly bear ‘highway’ in coastal BC | Gabriolan.ca

  6. Gitla - Elroy White

    As a resident of Bella Bella, i became familiar with stone fish traps and wooden stakes in the territory before i became an archaeologist. At that time, i was only familiar with two locations where wooden stakes were visible – kwakiusdis and Gullchucks – these stakes do not appear to form a recognizable pattern and are found in narrow stream channels, then, few years ago working on another project for the Nation, Neekas river channel changed uncovering a series of stakes placed along the side of a river much like the haida stakes. I worked at Kvai for 4 summers and was only familiar with the small stone fish trap near the mouth of the river, I could not understand how a small structure could function efficiently in a wide salmon river system until this project built their fish weir. Great job everyone

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