Fish Trap Update: Pilings Installed Despite Blustery, Cold Conditions
A major step has been made toward the development of sustainable, stock-selective fishing techniques in the Pacific Northwest. In three blustery, cold days near Cathlamet, WA, pilings were driven into white-capped waters of the Columbia River to provide the foundation to Washington State’s first fish trap in over eighty years. Once designed solely to satiate the appetite of an unsustainable commercial fishery, fish traps were notorious for the decimation of the Columbia’s once robust salmon runs. Resurrected from the issuance of a statewide ban in 1936, the pilings driven for Wild Fish Conservancy’s modern-day fish trap provide the structure to what may prove to be an essential step toward increasing survival of bycatch in commercial fisheries, reducing interbreeding of hatchery and wild salmonids, and improving escapement of threatened and endangered fishes to natal spawning grounds.
Since fish traps, seines, and fish wheels were collectively banned in 1936, gillnetting has remained the only legal method of commercially harvesting salmon in the Lower Columbia. Killing the great majority of fish that become wedged or gilled in its mesh, the gillnet is a non-selective tool that has resulted in unintentional overharvest of various non-targeted stocks mixed within the lower Columbia fishery.
In order to improve the selectivity of the Lower Columbia fishery and the survival of bycatch, the commercial selective gear implementation program was initiated by Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in 2009. Since the program began, purse seines and beach seines have been approved as alternative commercial gear types within the Lower Columbia. Nevertheless, while demonstrating substantial improvement in immediate survival relative to traditional gillnets, seines have failed to dramatically reduce pre-spawn mortality of captured and released fishes.
Dusting off archived blueprints nearly one-hundred years old, Wild Fish Conservancy has been hard at work researching and designing a modern-day fish trap that may provide an effective and sustainable alternative to commercial harvest strategies utilized within the Lower Columbia. Historically, fish traps provided the most efficient method of capturing salmon. With the construction of a modern-day trap, hatchery stocks could be targeted in large quantities, providing economic opportunity to local fishing communities and reducing escapement of hatchery fish which results in detrimental interbreeding with wild stocks. Furthermore, the design and harvest methodology of the gear may enable passive capture of fishes with minimal handling and air exposure; two ingredients required for the effective release of non-targeted species (including threatened and endangered wild salmonid stocks).
Driving pilings for the experimental trap last December, Wild Fish Conservancy made a groundbreaking step toward testing a gear that shows great promise in providing a sustainable future for Lower Columbia fisheries. In the coming months, the trap will be finalized in preparation for the fall 2016 test season. If the gear proves effective in increasing survival of released fishes relative to gillnets and seines, fish traps may once again become a common sight along the banks of the Columbia. This time, however, they will be utilized in a more responsible manner, providing not only economic gain but wild fish recovery.