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    Meet Lummi Island's fishing guru

    Jerry Anderson might not be Native American like the first reefnetters, but that doesn't mean the ancient fishing practice doesn't run in his blood.
    A reefnetting vessel.

    A reefnetting vessel. Photo: Flickr user ensteele.

    When Jerry Anderson started reefnetting on Lummi Island in 1943, he was only ten. At the time, reefnet boats were essentially large canoes, built with planks over a wooden frame. The headstand — the tower a reefnetting crew stands on to look for fish — was made of wood and stood no more than 10 feet tall. Like today, fishermen stood watch on the headstand for schools of fish, then caught them in a net suspended between two boats. Power winches wouldn’t appear until the early 1960s. Fifty years later, the stand would be made of welded aluminum and rise 20 feet above a wide and stable barge.

    Anderson settled on Lummi Island in the early 1950s and, from that point on, much of his life there revolved around fishing: the actual going out on the boats and catching fish, but also the speculation, rumor, politics and regulation that accompany it. 

    For decades Anderson, who served as the island’s postmaster, was also the Lummi Island nerve center for fishing politics. He got the urgent phone calls to say that the season had been opened; he had the latest gossip, the statistics, the test catch figures, which he put on the bulletin board in the post office. He was also involved in the biggest campaigns to save the salmon runs, and to save reefnetting from those who sought to end it. From his post office command center, Anderson developed a system of flags, then CB radio and later calls to mobile phones to “get the word out” that fishing season was open or closed or delayed.

    You might say salmon advocacy was the family business. Anderson’s father, “Swede” Anderson, was a director of the Washington State Department of Fisheries, president of the Pacific Marine Fisheries Commission and a member of the Fisheries Advisory Committee to the International Salmon Commission. He spent his career trying to save salmon stocks, preserve spawning grounds and balance the many competing interests staking a claim to salmon.  

    After his father’s death in 1950, 17-year-old Jerry Anderson dropped out of Western Washington State University to campaign against Initiative 192, which sought to outlaw reefnetting. He represented the reefnet industry at the US-Canada treaty negotiations after graduating. In 1974, he testified at hearings leading to the Boldt decision, which allocated 50 to 66 percent of the salmon catch to the Native American treaty fishers. He was a lifelong advocate of keeping lines of communication open with the various treaty groups, and with the Lummi Tribe in particular.

    “Fishing was where family happened, and the family was about fishing,” says Jerry's son Michael Anderson, who began fishing with his father at age 8, earning 2 cents per fish. For Michael and his brother Peter, it was “impossible” to turn off father-son dynamics on the reefnet gear.

    Working alongside their often demanding father, the Anderson boys learned resilience and tenacity. “Once I balked at cleaning out the accumulated slime in the fish holds with my bare hands, so my father got down on his hands and knees and showed me how to do it,” Michael recalls. Similar hardships – lying on thorny briars while painting the bottom of the boats, getting drenched with sea spray on a cold morning in the skiff or getting stung by a jelly fish were to be born without complaint. 

    In addition to being a father to Michael and Peter, Jerry was a father figure to the young men who were part of his crew, including my husband Jeff Greenberg and friends Craig Wright and Rolf Moan, who fished with the Andersons in the early 1980s and shared the experience of having distant or absent fathers of their own.

    ”Two months after my father’s unexpected death from cancer, when I was 20, I received a call from Lummi Island offering me an 'inside boater' job for the summer on the Anderson reefnet gear, despite my lack of experience,” recalls Moan.

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    Posted Fri, Sep 6, 9:43 a.m. Inappropriate

    Jerry Anderson deserves all our thanks for his fight to retain reefnetting. Traditional Native American reefnets and pound nets are two very effective ways to not just catch fish--but, unlike gill nets, do it in a way that allow fisherman to then release protected species of wild steelhead and salmon with minimal or no harm. Some of us continue to work towards a wider adoption of these nets in our commercial off-channel Columbia River fisheries.
    Bob Margulis
    Wild Steelhead Coalition


    Posted Fri, Sep 6, 9:54 a.m. Inappropriate

    My father trolled for salmon as a weekend fisherman, but so much of what you describe about fishing culture is still very familiar. Thanks for the reminder to "tie knots properly."


    Posted Fri, Sep 6, 10:24 a.m. Inappropriate

    Years ago, I spent a long day sitting in a reefnet tower hoping to catch fish off of Johns Island with an old gentleman named "Sunshine." Had my usual fishing luck--caught nothing. Our "reef" wasn't fooling anyone that day, but still it was memorable. I had watched reefnetters for years, but never had actually been on a working one. There used to be an amazing reefnet boat graveyard on Shaw--the old, wooden canoe-like vessels turning silver in the sun in a field as they rotted into the ground.

    Posted Fri, Sep 6, 12:04 p.m. Inappropriate

    Jerry is one of our tiny island's 'Hidden Treasures'. He has kept the lights burning for decades now, and while he no longer spends countless boring hours standing on the platform, he can take some credit for the recent record catch of salmon for one of the'gears'.
    Our fishery is healthy due to giants like Jerry. Thank you so much.


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