On the Puget Sound, the Women Whose Lives—and Work—Revolve Around Salmon

[Editor’s note: There are a lot of varying opinions on word choice when it comes to describing people who fish, from the universal use of fishermen versus the alternative fisherwoman, to non-gendered options like fisher, fishing families, and fishing folk. The women we spoke to had a mix of preferences on word choice—as it seems, do their peers—which you’ll see reflected in the story below.]

In the town of Bellingham, Washington, everyone knows when the salmon run come fall. Shimmery silvers and chum salmon break the chilly water’s surface with their heads, as they move through the Puget Sound and tributary rivers to their spawning grounds. Locals buzz, telling one another when they’ve seen them, admiring the fish on their journey.

Deb Granger looking for salmon on her reefnetting fishing boat

Courtesy Deborah Granger

Granger in her fishing gear

Courtesy Deborah Granger

But for Ellie Kinley, this isn’t just a fall spectacle. She thinks about these fish 365 days a year. Kinley is a third-generation commercial fisher, and a member of Lummi Nation (the Lhaq’temish people) whose ancestral lands include Bellingham, Lummi Island, and the San Juan Islands. The Lummi are one of several Coastal Salish groups in the Pacific Northwest and Western Canada that describe themselves as “The Salmon People.” Their heritage, foodways, religion, and identity are innately tied to the fish.

“I always say there hasn’t been a generation in my family that hasn’t fished,” says Kinley, who began catching salmon with her dad more than two decades ago, at age 23. “We just went from being subsistence fishers to commercial.”

Kinley is among many in the area who build on generations of salmon fishing, still using techniques invented centuries ago by Coastal Salish tribes. Reef-netting is one of the oldest net fishing techniques in the world; what was once perfected with two canoes and a net hung between them continues largely unchanged today on the Salish Sea, which includes the Puget Sound and nearby rivers (there are just larger boats, plastic nets, and, sometimes, solar panels for power).

A connection to the water almost feels inevitable on this stretch of northwest Washington’s shoreline. Whether you’re careening along the bluffs of the Chuckanut Scenic Highway, or driving slowly past the historic brick buildings of downtown Bellingham, the Puget Sound always looms to the west. There’s an abundance here that you can feel; and not just in the fresh oysters and crabs being hoisted ashore. Wildflowers are tangled on roadsides, and cloudy skies and rain showers (of which there are plenty) coat the city in a perpetual, nourishing dew. A short ferry ride across the sound, lush islands like Lummi, Orcas, and Lopez poke out of the water. 

There’s a strong and sometimes overlooked community of fishing families here. The Lummi have the largest tribal fishing fleet in the nation, according to Kinley; the port is also home to fishing families, native and non-native alike, who use Bellingham as their home base between fishing trips to Alaska and California. As a visitor, it is hard to miss how seafood is discussed in restaurants here, with an awareness of the waters each morsel came from—yet Kinley says many people outside the fishing community don’t realize there is a working waterfront in Bellingham.

Ellie Kinley cooking salmon the Lummi way at Bellingham SeaFeast

Courtesy Deborah Granger

Kinley’s fishing boat, the F/V Salish Sea

Courtesy Ellie Kinley

Deb Granger is trying to change that. She works as a reefnet fisherman in the same waters as Kinley, alongside her husband Pete whose family has lived on Lummi Island since 1888. When salmon season is in full swing and her team hits the water, 73 year-old Granger’s role is to climb some 15 feet up a tower on their fishing boat as it bobs on the sea, scanning the water for a lash of fish. “Give ‘er hell!” she likes to shout, as a crew of five people below lift the nets, squirming with fish, out of the water.

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