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The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea

By Lissa K. Wadewitz

November 4, 2013

Review By Howard Stewart

Lissa Wadewitz’s The Nature of Borders offers valuable insights into the shifting nature of boundaries on the Salish Sea and their significance for the Pacific salmon swimming through it. These fish traverse the sea on their way from the ocean where they have spent most of their adult lives, back to their freshwater spawning grounds. While she draws on material about fishing and (mis)management of all five Pacific salmon species from across the whole Salish Sea, Wadewitz mostly focuses on those Fraser River sockeye runs that pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the southernmost reaches of the Strait of Georgia.

The book considers first the complex boundaries that Native people established on various reaches of the sea. These were not always successful — witness the incursion of Kwakwaka’wakw speakers in search of rich fishing grounds at the north end of the sea in the first half of the nineteenth century. But as a rule, First Nations people defined boundaries in marine and freshwater environments that succeeded in ensuring a “sustained yield” of salmon and other aquatic life. One may assume — as Arthur McEvoy (1986), Jay Taylor (1999), and others have suggested — that Native fisheries along the northeast shore of the Pacific were operating at close to “maximum sustained yields;” the rich and reliable bounty of the sea sustained some of this continent’s largest native populations and its richest cultural heritage. The boundaries they created around fishing grounds, and the rules of harvesting that went with them, were sophisticated and carefully crafted products of much trial and error — examples of the sort of robust common property management systems that the late, great, Elinor Ostrom (2008) assured us are not so uncommon.

Wadewitz reminds us, as Richard Mackie (1997) earlier demonstrated, that Fraser River salmon had already become a valuable international commodity in the hands of the Hudson’s Bay Company by the mid-nineteenth century. However, this initial commodity trade depended on Native fisheries and, as Wadewitz points out, did little to upset Native boundaries on the sea. A modern “Tragedy of the Commons” would befall the sea’s rich salmon runs only with the arrival of an industrial Eurasian fishery in the final decades of the nineteenth century. By the early twentieth century, the price for tinned salmon on the London exchange had become a function of the size of that year’s Fraser River sockeye run, while fears were already mounting about the depletion of what had seemed like an endless bounty only a few years before.

Presumably in oblique reference to Cole Harris’s (2002) account of the creation of BC’s Native reserve system in these years, Wadewitz speaks of a “Remaking of Native Space” on the sea. Native fishers were pushed onto tiny reserves and off many of the richest fishing grounds (except if they worked for the canneries). Native fish management boundaries were replaced by an “international border” that would eventually be agreed between the British and American empires, with help from the first Emperor of modern Germany. Running up Haro Strait, then in a ragged zed across the south end of the Strait of Georgia to the mainland, it’s hard to imagine a boundary less connected to the habits of the salmonids traversing these waters or to the Native people who had organized their lives around them.

The geopolitical deliberations of those who drew the new border had little to do with fish. Even in Victoria, people at the time worried mostly about how they would defend “their inland sea” now that the Americans could mount their guns on Haro Strait. Yet, as Wadewitz demonstrates so ably in the second half of her book, these arbitrary new lines across the sea would make a significant contribution to settler (mis)management of the salmon.

By the time the settlers’ assault on salmon had reached high gear around the turn of the century, frequent complaints arose from both sides of the new line about how those on the other side of the border were, one way or another, taking an “unfair share” of this prolific bounty. It is sobering to consider that these complaints were sincere and serious. The plaintiffs were unselfconsciously immersed in a profligate and greedy assault on their newly discovered “natural resource;” in many years, hundreds of thousands and sometimes millions of salmon were wasted. Accusations that fishers and canners on “the other side” were somehow “mismanaging” or “breaking the rules” look remarkably hypocritical from a twenty-first century perspective — a lot like when today’s SUV-loving citizens of North America warn of the growing danger posed by China’s rapidly increasing greenhouse gas emissions.

The Kaiser’s new border through the ancient Salish Sea — much like different types of international sanctions imposed today — inadvertently created rich new opportunities for people who knew how to manipulate them in their favour. These people included Wadewitz’s “Bandits on the Salish Sea” — people who could see the money to be made by slipping across a border in the night, dipping into the teeming flesh writhing about in one of the canners’ vast “salmon traps,” and then selling the purloined meat to yet another rich canner, who would be twice happy: he could keep his canning lines humming while beggaring the “foreign” competition.

Wadewitz’s story is a valuable example of the shifting nature but abiding power of the diverse boundaries we humans are constantly drawing, erasing, and redrawing throughout the biophysical environment. The environmental impacts of these lines can be especially grievous when those who draw them, or erase them, eschew any consideration of the same. Wadewitz finishes her story with a brief outline of the modest “two steps forward, one step back” style of progress achieved by “fisheries managers” on both sides of the line during the twentieth century. Though improvements have been made, the international boundary often still impedes effective management of this once-prodigious resource, even as new challenges emerge. Open feedlots of Atlantic salmon, for example, share their diseases and parasites with struggling stocks of native Pacific salmon. Wild salmon stocks remain unprotected by the more impervious sorts of boundaries one might reasonably expect to see placed around industrial fish farms generating a steady stream of toxic waste.


Harris, Cole. 2002. Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance and Reserves in British Columbia. Vancouver: UBC Press.

Mackie, Richard S. 1996. Trading Beyond the Mountains: The British Fur Trade on the Pacific, 1793-1843. Vancouver: UBC Press.

McEvoy, Arthur F. 1986. The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850-1980. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Orstrom, Elinor. 2008. “The Challenge of Common Pool Resources.” Environment 50, no 4: 8-21.

Taylor, J. E. 1999. Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

The Nature of Borders: Salmon, Boundaries, and Bandits on the Salish Sea
By Lissa K. Wadewitz
Vancouver: UBC Press, 2012. 368 pages. $24.95 paper