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Survival: Native American Methods for Catching Fish and Edible Sea Life

Native American Fishing Methods
Tidal zones, beaches, and coastlines offer up a bounty of food in a time of survival, like crab, kelp, and clams. Learn how to net and trap seabirds, how to build clam "gardens" for raising and harvesting large numbers of clams, and more "forgotten" methods of early Native Americans.

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When the tide is out on Gibson Beach in the Straight of Georgia on Canada's West Coast, rock walls appear where early century Native Americans once built various fish traps and other rock formations for harvesting sea life, such as clams.
Every time the tide comes in fish and various other creatures are carried into the rock walls and formations that have been built. Then when the tide retreats an array of edible sea life is caught in these rock formations.

Native American Methods for Harvesting Sea Life

Archaeology.org reports (in a Sept. 2011 article) that on Gibson Beach (on Canada's West Coast) early century Native Americans had even built a clam garden -- a shallow pool measuring 100 feet in diameter -- an ideal habitat for clams to grow. Archaeology.org writes: "Nearby, also in the intertidal zone, is a chevron-shaped collection of stones that opens into the sea and funnels fish toward the shore, a fish trap."

Early Americans reportedly fished and harvested the Western Canadian coastline as early as 2,000 years ago as rock formations and various fish traps have been found up and down the coast.

Native American Methods for Coastal Fishing

Prior to these recent revelations, it was believed that salmon was the chief food supply. Salmon are seasonal fish though and don't provide a fresh source of food year round -- so they have to be dried and smoked for storage. This would be the only way for early Native Americans in this area to survive through the weeks and months when salmon weren't in season. Spear fishing and harpooning were common methods for salmon fishing (more on spear fishing below).

So this is what was believed until these rock formations were discovered of fish traps and sea life harvesting pools; it's clear that early Native Americans in this region of the country were harvesting a lot more than salmon from the ocean.

Sea Life Harvesting Along Coastal Areas

For those of us into survival and learning how to live off the land, these reports show that harvesting sea life along coastal areas can be an effective way to live and survive with plenty of food to go around.

A local coastal area may not be enough to provide food for a hundred thousand people year round -- but perhaps a few hundred (possibly thousands) of people could get plenty of food to go around.

Historically, large numbers of Native Americans were chiefly supported in the Pacific Northwest region through fishing and the harvesting of other edible sea life.

Archaeology.org writes: "Lepofsky believes that the native British Columbians deliberately and consciously managed their marine and other food resources. By combining archaeology with local oral history, she and others are concluding that these societies oversaw an entire oceanfront ecosystem that offered a diverse bounty of marine life, including little fish (such as anchovies), roe, clams, cockles, sea urchins, and eelgrass."

Fishing as Hunter / Gatherers

Discoveries around the area a few miles inland show that early Native Americans in this region were hunter / gatherers, staying in one area long enough to make the most of the local food supply, then moving on to other areas.

In addition to salmon fishing and harvesting sea life from tidal zones, these early Native Americans also hunted deer and elk.

But don't think that fishing and harvesting sea life is only found in the Pacific Northwest -- become familiar with coastal areas in your region of the country (remote coastal areas most likely un-effected by pollution, which can cause problems with sea life, making it toxic -- more on that below).

Native American Fishing Along the West Coast

Early Americans up and down the West Coast, from California to Alaska weren't just after salmon, evidence is showing, but also smaller fish like herring, smelt, anchovies, clams, and fish roe; add to this list, waterfowl (seabirds and other birds like ducks and geese). Entire villages were fed by the bounty that came from the sea.

When talking about a food source that supplies an entire community, important points need to be considered regarding management of these natural resources -- humans have many times hunted animals to the point of extinction as well as destroyed the land by over-farming, over-fishing, or using the wrong techniques.

For those of us interested in survival and living off the land, not only is it important to learn how to find and raise food, but also how to manage the local resources so that we don't destroy our food supplies -- should we and others have to live off the land long term.

Harvesting Herring Roe on Kelp Forests

Another method of fish harvesting was developed by British Columbian early Americans -- harvesting herring roe on kelp forests. When kelp wasn't available, they used deliberately submerged branches of Douglas fir trees (a practice that later died out with the herring run.)

How to Harvest Fish and Sea Life from a Tidal Area

Fish Traps

Fish traps can be built using rock formations that funnel fish in and then hold them in pools as the tide goes out. They can also be built using a series of large sticks stuck in the ground like stakes in a similar formation. Fish traps can be a very efficient way to catch fish with little labor. Build new traps up and down the shoreline in tidal zones -- then check your traps each time the tide goes out.

The Encyclopedia of American Indian Contributions to the world states: "On the east coast of North America in what is now Boston, Massachusetts, Paleo-Indians constructed one weir [fish trap] made of about 65,000 wooden stakes that they had driven into clay where tidal waters were present. They wove small branches between the stakes so that water could pass through the wickerwork, but fish could not. Archaeologists have dated this fish weir to between 4000 and 2000 B.C.. Archaeologists Franklin Folsom and Mary Elting Folsom wrote in America's Ancient Treasures: 'The Archaic people who used this trap had obviously achieved a rather highly organized society; otherwise they could not have built and maintained such a large and complicated device for obtaining food.'"

Clam Gardens

Build pool areas (shallow depressions in the tidal zone) that fill with water when the tide goes out. When the tide is out, comb the beach for small (juvenile) clams and move these to your clam garden (you can have more than one clam garden going). Rim these pools with large rocks; using small rocks and pebbles fill the spaces between the large rocks, so that when the tide comes in and out, clams aren't carried out and stay put.

Harvesting Clams

What do you do once you start harvesting clams and other sea life? Christopher Reaske, author of The Complete Clammer, gives tips. Library Journal writes: "Reaske offers soup-to-nuts (to have around your main seafood course) guides to catching clams, oysters, mussels, crabs, and lobsters. Each book presents details on the equipment needed, biological information, plus tips on preparing the fish and a few recipes."

Edible Seaweed

Most seaweed -- like kelp -- is edible, containing protein and carbohydrates, with many types of edible seaweed being high in vitamins and minerals. In many nations seaweed is even farmed. Once washed, seaweed (those that are edible) can be eaten raw or dried. (Seaweed found in fresh water areas like green or blue algae are highly poisonous). A good field guide on wild plants such as this book by Bradford Angier is suggested: Field Guide to Edible Wild Plants. He includes photos and descriptions of kelp as well as other types of edible seaweed (note: not all books on wild edibles include information on different types of seaweed -- this one does). He has also written: Field Guide to Medicinal Wild Plants: 2nd Edition.

Edible Sea Urchin

Early Native Americans were also known to eat sea urchins. Sea urchins were eaten by many early people around the world. "Edible Sea Urchin" is the scientific name given -- clearly that means these things are edible. While all species are edible, as reported, there are some that aren't that palatable -- meaning some have a bitter taste. Finally, it has been reported that some sea urchins can become toxic if they feed on toxic algae. Not all of the sea urchin might be toxic, however -- just the gonads. By the way, if you didn't know -- sea urchins aren't plants -- they're creatures. Sea urchins have ovaries (which is blamed for the bitter taste in some) and gonads.

Danger of Contamination from Pollutants

If you're going to comb the beach for edible sea life, areas near large cities and heavily populated areas may be contaminated by pollution and even sewage. It is best to not eat sea life off the beaches in these areas, according to author Edwin Iverson, author of Dangerous Sea Life of the West Atlantic, Caribbean, and Gulf of Mexico: A Guide for Accident Prevention and First Aid. In fact if you're going to live and spend your time in or near the ocean seeking food, this book would be a good resource to be familiar with -- due to the number of unknown dangers from poisonous or predatory sea life (not all sea life is edible and not all sea life is friendly), as well as the dangers of fish (normally edible) carrying parasites, round worms, and other substances that can cause sickness and disease in people.

Waterfowl / Seabirds

For a person stranded at sea or simply surviving off a coastline, waterfowl (seabirds) can be caught sometimes even easier than fish. Along the coast waterfowl can be caught with above ground traps (such as deadfalls) as well as using a spear, bow and arrow, slingshot, or throwing stick. You can set up dozens of deadfall traps along a beach and then bait each trap with sea life -- such as clams or muscles that you've pried (or smashed) open. When a seabird pecks at the bait it will trigger the deadfall, dropping a large rock or log.

They can also be caught with a net set up overhead like a deadfall, a few feet off the beach, propped up by sticks impaled in the ground. (Imagine four sticks a few feet apart from one another, impaled in the ground, holding up a net 3 feet over the beach.) Instead of a rock or log falling on a bird like a deadfall, you would pull a rope (tug at a long rope, while you're hidden out of sight) -- or simply a vine -- that pulls at one of the sticks supporting the net -- knocking the entire net and sticks over -- with the net falling on the bird (that's one method anyway).

Preparing Seabirds - Seabirds contain oil glands in their skin; to be eaten safely they need to be skinned rather than plucked. It's reported that they can be eaten raw but like all other wildlife it's always safest to simply thoroughly cook any food you catch (guts and other innards that you don't eat can be used as fish bait).

Crabbing

Crabbing is a popular activity for fishermen today -- it involves dropping crab pots into shallow ocean areas and then pulling up these crab pots later in the day, sometimes (or often) filled with crab. In Washington State alone sports fishers catch more than a million pounds each year of Dungeness crab using pots and nets. People who fish by wading in the surf can also haul in quite a bit of crab and others are people who fish for crabs by diving underwater.

Crab bait: Bait your traps with mackerel, tuna, and squid ... even chicken works (bone-in chicken). Keep in mind if chicken on the bone works there's a great chance that any seabirds you can catch will also work -- skin the bird and use the parts you don't eat.

Preparing Crab: Catching, cleaning, and cooking crab involves multiple steps. .Here's a detailed article on preparing crab.

To keep the species plentiful, Washington State has a rule that all females should be returned to the water (I'm sure other states have similar rules). Additionally, any male crabs that are taken have to meet minimum size limits.

When learning about survival -- and having to live off the land in an emergency -- current wildlife laws can take a back seat so that you can feed yourself and your family.

But what if you're living off the land -- long term -- after a time of widespread disaster? You and the hundreds of thousands of other people also trying to live off the land in your region would be smart to practice game and wildlife management -- this keeps an area from being over hunted and over fished, ensuring food for the next year.

Many times people have over hunted and over fished areas, even causing the extinction of important food sources.

Let's learn from these mistakes and not do the same.

Spear Fishing

Throughout the world, spear fishing has been a tool for catching fish, going back many centuries. There are different types of spear fishing:

  • Spear fishing in shallow tidal areas (spear fishers don't have to dive underwater, they can stand on rocks or even sand or man-made platforms).

  • Spear fishing by diving (shore diving) into the ocean from the beach and swimming a short distance underwater, while on the look out for specific fish.

  • Blue water diving -- diving into the water from a boat either in the open ocean or simply a short distance from shore. Nowadays man-made structures are often fished due to the fish these structures attract (oil rigs, fish aggregating devices). Wikipedia writes:"A fish aggregating (or aggregation) device (FAD) is a man-made object used to attract ocean going pelagic fish such as marlin, tuna and mahi-mahi (dolphin fish). They usually consist of buoys or floats tethered to the ocean floor with concrete blocks. Over 300 species of fish gather around FADs. FAD's attract fish for numerous reasons that vary by species.

  • Fish tend to move around FADs in varying orbits, rather than remaining stationary below the buoys. Both recreational and commercial fisheries use FADs".

  • When spear fishing from the rocks or beach, a spear can be a much longer length -- the length will help close the distance between you and the fish. It can be made simply from a sharpened stick with a barbed end -- though nowadays man-made steel spear tips are sold, as well as complete spears.

  • Spear fishing underwater can involve scuba diving equipment, though the use of scuba equipment (while spear fishing) is illegal in many areas.

  • Snorkeling may not be as effective as scuba diving, but snorkeling is more effective than free diving without any breathing apparatus. Remember to bring snorkeling gear.

  • In cold water wetsuits can be worn to keep divers warm. Even in the frigid waters off the coast of Alaska, spear fishing is possible with these wetsuits (full body suits with foot protection, gloves, and hoods).

  • Nowadays a camouflage wetsuit (colored to blend in with the under water environment) is another tool to add to your spear fishing arsenal.
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