Aaron Jorgenson

Washington Fish Trap Courts Legal Status

Washington Fish Trap Courts Legal Status

The director of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife is considering legalizing this promising selective fishing gear—for the first time in more than 85 years.

A century ago, fish traps lined both sides of the Lower Columbia River. The traps, also called pound nets, were wildly efficient at catching salmon—guiding them into a watery, net-lined heart for easy harvest.

But the traps’ effectiveness in corralling boatloads of fish proved to be their downfall. In 1934, concerned by rampant commercial overharvest, Washington became the first U.S. state to ban fish traps, followed by Oregon in 1948. Alaska even wrote a fish trap ban into its state constitution in 1959.

Salmon managers face pressure to keep fisheries open while finding ways to avoid catching vulnerable fish populations. A growing network of fishers, salmon managers, and restaurateurs see fish traps as a tool to secure both.

Today, commercial overharvest is still a big issue for salmon managers. But there are also new pressures: to keep fisheries open while finding ways to avoid catching vulnerable fish populations like steelhead and spring Chinook. Meanwhile, more consumers are scrutinizing—with good reason—the sourcing and sustainability of the salmon they eat. That’s why a growing network of fishers, salmon managers, and restaurateurs now see fish traps as a tool for a more selective (and delectable) future for salmon

Fisherman Blake Peterson, the pioneering force behind the Columbia River fish trap, and Adrian Tuohy, a Wild Fish Conservancy biologist, spill coho salmon in the fish trap’s heart. (PC: Aaron Jorgenson.)

For the past five years, the Wild Fish Conservancy—with support from the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and partners including Wild Salmon Center—has operated an experimental fish trap on the Lower Columbia: the first operational fish trap on the West Coast in more than 85 years. WFC monitoring has proven that the fish trap, thanks to its passive engineering and a few modern tweaks, can operate with near-zero mortality for vulnerable fish species. 

Now, WFC and its allies are on the cusp of convincing WDFW to name the experimental trap as a new “emerging fishery.”

“We absolutely need more selective fishing options for our commercial salmon fishers,” says WSC Washington Director Jess Helsley.  “The fish trap has proven that it can enable safe release of the wild fish we are all fighting to protect, creating the opportunity to accountably harvest target populations. It’s time to legalize fish traps and incentivize their commercial use.”

The Fish Trap Moves Forward from North Fork Studios on Vimeo.

As an emerging commercial fishery, modified fish traps would once again be legal in Washington. That status would represent a rare expansion of the gear types available to commercial fishers, and a welcome alternative.

“The fish trap has proven that it can enable safe release of the wild fish we are all fighting to protect,” says Helsley. “It’s time to legalize fish traps and incentivize their commercial use.”

Ultimately, the decision falls to WDFW Director Kelly Susewind. Right now, Helsley says, the public has the rare opportunity to directly support the fish trap’s legalization. (See contact information below.)

“If you support providing fishers with a more sustainable choice, one that allows for the safe release of wild fish, please share your support with Director Susewind now, while he’s considering his decision,” says Helsley.

A thumbs up would be history in the making, Helsley says—and a clear win-win for the future of wild fish, orcas, fishers, and the economies of coastal communities. 

TAKE ACTION:

Let WDFW Director Kelly know you support legalizing the Lower Columbia River fish trap with emerging fishery status.

CALL: Call the WDFW’s main phone line and ask to leave a message for Director Kelly Susewind: 360-902-2200

EMAIL: Send an email to WDFW Director Kelly Susewind and copy the Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission:

To: Kelly.Susewind@dfw.wa.gov
CC: commission@dfw.wa.gov

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