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Research reveals K’omoks people’s advanced fishing methods a thousand years ago

“The Comox Harbour Fish Trap Complex: A Large-Scale, Technologically Sophisticated Intertidal Fishery from British Columbia” was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Archaelogy. (Back L to R) Archaeologist David McGee, KFN councillor Josh Frank, KFN chief Rob Everson, archaeologist Rod Heitzmann, (front L to R) archaeologist Nancy Greene and KFN councillor Barb Mitchell. - Michael Briones
“The Comox Harbour Fish Trap Complex: A Large-Scale, Technologically Sophisticated Intertidal Fishery from British Columbia” was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Archaelogy. (Back L to R) Archaeologist David McGee, KFN councillor Josh Frank, KFN chief Rob Everson, archaeologist Rod Heitzmann, (front L to R) archaeologist Nancy Greene and KFN councillor Barb Mitchell.
— image credit: Michael Briones

When you look at the Comox Harbour you may notice what many would easily perceive to be simply hundreds of sticks in the mud particularly during low tide.

Deep down, however, they're truly more than that.

Three Courtenay archaeologists, Nany Greene, David McGee and Rod Heitzmann have discovered what they are and have authored a scientific paper titled "The Comox Harbour Fish Trap Complex: A Large-Scale, Technologically Sophisticated Intertidal Fishery from British Columbia" that was recently published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology.

The myriad of stakes visible during low tide are embedded deep in the sand and they revealed an ancient method of fishing, one that reflects the ingenuity of the K'omoks First Nation over a thousand years ago.

Ten years ago, Greene saw the wooden stakes sticking out of the mud along the shore of the estuary near the K'omoks First Nation reserve. She was curious and wondered what they're were all about.

As an archaeology student at Malaspina College, now Vancouver Island University, she decided to make it into a project.

"It had never been done before," said Greene. "Archaeology is normally done on the land. The wood stakes have been noted for many, many years by archaeologists working on the coast. They knew they were for fishing and there were fishing structures there but there was no work done to really map and understand what these things look like, what the traps look like and when they were."

Since the stakes were in the K'omoks traditional territory, Greene sought permission from the band council at the time, which supported the study.

There are around 200,000 stakes distributed extensively across the tidal flats and that's a conservative estimate said Greene. They are the remains of hundreds of fish traps built by ancestors of the K'ómoks people. They were large structures built with enclosures, some as large as 30 to 40 meters in diameter, capable of corralling immense numbers of fish to feed not just one or two families but an entire population.

"It demonstrates that if fishery wasn't commercial, it certainly was supportive of our population," said K'omoks chief Rob Everson, who added that it also indicates a large permanent population of people living the shores of the estuary for more than a thousand years.

In order to see what the original fish traps may have looked like, Greene and McGee, along with a group of hardy volunteers, mapped the positions of more than 13,000 stakes using precision surveying equipment and produced detailed pictures that indicate the First Nations fishers designed and built two different types of traps. One type was designed to catch herring, and the second type of trap was designed to capture salmon. This is the first research that indicates First Nations people living along the northwest coast of North America used such large and technologically sophisticated fish traps in the marine environment.

Each of these traps consisted of a large pole framework built by securely pounding long poles cut from small tree trunks (mostly Douglas fir saplings) into the tidal flat sediments, and removable woven latticework panels would have been lashed to the upright poles. These panels were constructed with openings large enough for water to pass through easily, but small enough to ensure that fish could not escape. When "set to fish," the traps would have functioned automatically with the rising and falling tides in the estuary.

"They were very sophisticated in their designs," said Greene. "They were designed with a detailed knowledge of fish behaviour. So the trapping methods are something that are staggering to modern science now. They have no idea this sophistication existed almost 1500 years ago."

Radiocarbon dating of 57 wooden stakes indicates that traps designed to capture herring were built between approximately A.D. 650 – A.D. 1150, and salmon traps were built between approximately A.D. 1350 – A.D. 1850. This also demonstrates how the designs were upgraded to adjusts to a climatic shift from a relative warm and dry climate to a colder and wetter climate that led to a marked increase in the availability of salmon at Comox Harbour about 700 years ago.

"It shows a high level of knowledge particularly of marine resources," said Greene.

The research also revealed how the K'omoks people at the time were already into conservation and sustainability.

"The traps were designed in such a way that it was a highly sustainable fishery here," said Greened. "The traps worked when they were set to fish. Removal panels were attached to them and you can take them off and put them on. When they're on, the fish go in automatically and contained. But when they're off, fish are able to go out, in the case of salmon, they're allowed to continue up and spawn. So there was a consciousness of working with nature to ensure that the fishery was sustained."

The research was largely funded by Greene and McGee, with support for radiocarbon dating generously provided by K'ómoks First Nation, Hamatla Treaty Society, Comox Valley Project Watershed Society, Comox Valley Regional District, the municipalities of Comox, Courtenay and Cumberland, an NSERC grant and special grant to Dr. Paul Horgen from the University of Toronto, and 27 individual donors (members of the Stick in the Mud Club).

"The archaeological site is an important cultural asset for the Comox Valley, and I was very pleased when the community responded by really pitching in to help us," said Greene.

Heitzmann, a member of Greene's team, commented "there is no where else on the B.C. coast where fish traps of these types have been identified in such numbers and good preservation. We are hoping to nominate the site as a National Historic Site of Canada."

The research published in the Canadian Journal of Archaeology can be accessed at http://canadianarchaeology.com/.

McGee said they are honoured to have a picture of the site of their study as the cover of the journal.

"To get in the cover means it's pretty important," said McGee. "It raises the profile of the whole project. Internationally this site is going to be very significant and cause a lot of interest among archaelogists and academics."

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