Legalizing Sustainability

By Kurt Beardslee, Executive Director of Wild Fish Conservancy

A momentous decision awaits the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) this month as the agency is set to determine whether to legalize alternative fishing practices to gill netting that are proven to allow for low-impact release of wild salmon and steelhead in commercial fisheries. To date, gill netting remains the only legal method of fishing in the lower Columbia River fall fishery and all wild Chinook and coho salmon entangled in commercial nets are harvested, regardless of their status under the Endangered Species Act (ESA); steelhead that are removed from the nets are discarded overboard and management agencies have simply assumed that 55-62% survive in the absence of actual post-release survival data (TAC 2018; NMFS 2018). This pending decision by WDFW’s Director may legalize modified fish traps at a broader scale in the lower Columbia River, ensuring that fishers have tested and proven options, wild salmon and steelhead bycatch are always released, and potential impacts to bycatch species are calculable.

Fish trap in the Cathlamet Channel, lower Columbia River, WA.

In Washington, the gill net became the only legal gear for the commercial harvest of salmon on the Columbia River after 1934. In a political push led by gill netters of the state, all alternative gears that competed with gill nets (including fish traps, seines, set nets, and fish wheels) were banned with passage of Initiative 77. The publicized goal of the ban was to reduce fishing effort to protect the Columbia’s rapidly declining salmon runs. Nevertheless, as the Oregon Fish Commission reported in 1948, the ban failed to curb overall fishing effort and improve salmon escapement to the spawning grounds (Johnson et al. 1948). Overall, the 1934 legislative decision served “to the benefit of the large gill net fleet, but not to the fish it was intended to preserve” (Johnson et al. 1948, pg. 22).

Although the elimination of fish traps, seines, set nets, and fish wheels failed to achieve the intended goal of conserving salmon (Johnson et al. 1948), the laws specified under Initiative 77 remain in full-effect to the present day. This has prevented fishers from using alternatives to the gill net and has limited opportunities to release fish stocks that are now listed under the ESA.

The gill net capture method makes it nearly impossible for even the most conscientious operator to release wild salmon and steelhead unharmed, creating a harvest resource dilemma. Without an alternative harvest method, resource managers have justified the harvest of wild salmon that are mixed within the fishery alongside hatchery-origin fishes produced for the purpose of harvest. Indiscriminate harvest of hatchery and wild fishes has occurred for decades despite common knowledge that killing wild salmon and steelhead in these mixed-stock fisheries may further harm depleted wild salmon and steelhead populations. 

Given the decline of the Columbia’s salmon runs and recognition of harvest and hatcheries as limiting factors to wild salmon recovery, fisheries managers and scientists alike have encouraged a return to alternative gears, such as fish traps, that support selective harvest of hatchery fish and safe release of threatened wild salmon and steelhead. In 2009, the WA Fish and Wildlife Commission adopted the Hatchery and Fishery Reform Policy (C-3619), followed shortly after by the Columbia River Salmon Fishery Policy (C-3620) in 2013. These policies directed WDFW to “develop, promote, and implement alternative fishing gear to maximize catch of hatchery-origin fish with minimal mortality to native salmon and steelhead” (WFWC 2009). Both policies strived to advance wild salmonid recovery while benefiting fishing communities that are dramatically constrained by gill net bycatch impacts to ESA-listed species.

All wild salmon and steelhead are released from a fish trap operating in the Cathlamet Channel, lower Columbia River, WA.

Understanding that alternative gears and selective fishing have considerable potential to benefit wild fish recovery and coastal fishing communities, Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) has worked diligently over the last five years to help WDFW achieve its policy objectives for C-3619 and C-3620. With peer-reviewed and published research, WFC and our commercial fishing partners have proven that modified fish traps can be used in a highly effective manner for selective, sustainable harvest. Across the board, the fish trap is one of the best tools available (if not the best) at removing hatchery fish and releasing wild salmonids in a low-impact manner (Table 1).

GearFall ChinookCohoSockeyeSteelhead
Gill net00.0%00.0%UnknownUnknown
Tangle net76.4%76.4%UnknownUnknown
Beach seine75.0%62.0%Unknown92.0%
Purse seine78.0%71.0%Unknown98.0%
Fish trap99.5%100.0%*99.4%*94.4%
Table 1. Survival from conventional and alternative gears in the lower Columbia River. Chinook and coho salmon survival from gill nets is 0.00% since the fishery does not release wild salmon. Steelhead post-release survival from gill nets has not been studied and remains unknown. *Fish trap results for coho and sockeye represent results from the modified passive capture study. Coho and sockeye survival were not studied for the original prototype fish trap design.

The fish trap is also one of the most well-studied commercial fishing gears in the basin, with WFC’s results representing the only peer-reviewed and published research for a fishing gear within the lower Columbia River fall salmon fishery.

Although research results for the fish trap are already impressive, recent research of a modified passive capture process has demonstrated that the fish trap may be one of the only alternative gears capable of being further improved to essentially eliminate bycatch mortality of wild adult salmonids altogether. Based upon promising results for coho and sockeye salmon, research of a new passive fish trap design this coming summer season in Oregon is hypothesized to demonstrate 100% survival of wild steelhead and Chinook salmon, improving sustainable fishing opportunities within the lower Columbia River fishery.

WFC is preparing for its most recent fish trap study in the lower Columbia River, Oregon. This study, planned for the summer and fall of 2021, will scale-up an investigation of the passive capture process that has been shown to have no detectable impact on adult salmon bycatch post-release survival.

Given these research successes and the potential for innovation and improvement demonstrated in WFC’s recent passive trapping studies, WDFW initiated a formal process to potentially legalize the fish trap through what is called the Emerging Commercial Fishery Designation (RCW 77.65.400). As part of the process, a five-person, director-appointed advisory board was formed from the affected industry to make recommendations on how, when, and where to operate the gear in the newly designated fishery.

Over a year since the initiation of the Emerging Commercial Fishery process, the time has finally come for the Director of WDFW to determine whether alternatives to the gill net, including fish traps and seines, should be legalized. This legalization process would simply allow those that strive to fish sustainably to have the opportunity to use alternative gears and release wild salmon; no fisher would be forced to change gears against their will.

A decision to designate the Emerging Commercial Fishery would help provide a diverse set of tools to fishers into the future, enabling each individual to choose which gear they use depending upon their preferences and the challenges that are faced in a given season. All alternative gears would be managed based upon estimated impacts to bycatch species (the product of the approved bycatch mortality rate and bycatch encounters), allowing fishers to assess which tool may provide the greatest economic benefit in a given season while ensuring that no stock is overharvested.

Local commercial fisher Billie Delaney assists with the fish trap project in the lower Columbia River. She sees the tool as a potential means for a new generation of environmentally conscientious fishers to take part in the fishery, expand sustainable fishing opportunities, and add-value to harvested seafood products.

WFC’s science team has spent years researching alternative gear and we understand the considerable potential of selective fishing in addressing primary limiting factors to salmon recovery. Even if it is assumed from a conservative perspective that the fish trap cannot be further improved to advance bycatch survival, a managed trap fishery would provide sweeping benefits to wild Chinook and coho salmon in the lower Columbia River fishery relative to the conventional gill net fishery. For the first time, these wild salmon stocks could be successfully released with nearly 100% survival, rather than killed and harvested. Additionally, the fish trap is one of the only tools capable of selectively targeting hatchery salmon for harvest and reducing the percentage of hatchery-origin fishes on wild salmon spawning grounds (pHOS). This may help maintain the fitness of wild fish populations that are threatened by the genetic and ecological effects of hatchery production.

Commercial fisher Blair Peterson chooses to use a fish trap to sustainably harvest hatchery salmon in the lower Columbia River, WA in 2020. Hatchery fish were allowed to be temporarily harvested with the gear through a State-sponsored test fishery; all wild salmon and steelhead were safely released without a single immediate adult mortality.

In contrast, gill nets that harvest all wild and hatchery salmon, together, have almost zero likelihood of reducing pHOS in a given season as they inflict a common harvest rate amongst both hatchery and wild stocks encountered in mainstem fisheries. Furthermore, gill nets cause bycatch impacts to steelhead that currently remain unknown due to management’s failure to study post-release mortality effects and document annual bycatch encounters from the industry (NMFS 2018). Not only has management’s blind assumptions about the gill net skirted scientific peer-review and publication processes, but post-release survival data for the gear simply do not exist for the primary limiting bycatch stock in the basin: ESA protected wild summer steelhead (NMFS 2018).

Perhaps unintentionally, fisheries managers have aimed to clear the lowest possible bar for wild salmonid conservation in the Columbia River for years: maximize commercial use of negotiated allowable mortalities to ESA-listed steelhead, mostly ignore the harvest of wild ESA-listed Chinook and coho, and forget about pHOS and hatchery effects altogether. With proven solutions at hand, we believe it is time for management to start aiming a little bit higher.

Understanding the potential short and long-term benefits of alternative gears in addressing harvest and hatchery conservation issues, I am simply asking the Director of WDFW to follow through with state policy directives; designate the Emerging Commercial Fishery trial period and approve what is highly logical and reasonable for fishers and wild salmonid recovery:

  1. Allow commercial fishers that strive to fish sustainably to have the opportunity to use sustainable alternatives to gill nets (i.e., don’t force fishers to use gill nets).
  2. Allow fishers to safely release wild salmon and steelhead for the first time with alternative gears.
  3. Give fishers a chance to innovate with alternative gears to further reduce bycatch impacts and add-value to harvested products.
Commercial fishers Blair Peterson and Mike Clark of Wahkiakum County, WA choose to use alternative gear in the lower Columbia River. These fishers see the fish trap as a way to improve sustainable fishing opportunities and add-value to harvested products.

What WFC is proposing is not a tall order. Simply give fishers sustainable options and flexibility so that we may give wild fish and fishing communities a fighting chance to recover. Having a diverse set of tools available to fishers will better enable communities to adapt to an uncertain future and enhance economic resiliency. Similarly, protecting wild salmonids and addressing problems associated with hatchery production will protect the genetic diversity of wild fish populations, enabling adaptation and survival in the face of global climate change.

To our readers, I encourage you to send a comment to WDFW’s Director encouraging designation of the emerging commercial fishery that will allow fishers to use alternatives to gill netting (if fishers choose to do so). It’s a common-sense, win-win solution for recovery of wild fish populations and the Columbia River fishery.

Commercial fisher Blair Peterson delivers his daily catch from a fish trap to be processed locally in his home town of Cathlamet, WA. Improving sustainable fishing opportunities in the region stands to provide economic benefit not only to fishers, but fish buyers, processors, and other businesses in working waterfront communities.


Johnson, D. R., W. M. Chapman, and R. W. Schoning. 1948. The effects on salmon populations of the partial elimination of fixed fishing gear on the Columbia River in 1935. Oregon Fish Commission, Portland.

NMFS. 2018. Memo from NMFS to the U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee: Release Mortality rates for fall season non-treaty commercial gillnet and tangle net gear. July 30, 2018.

TAC. 2018. Memo from U.S. v. Oregon Technical Advisory Committee to U.S. v. Oregon Policy Committee. Recommended Revisions to Release Mortality Rates Used for Fall Non-Treaty Commercial Fisheries. March 23, 2018. 34p.

Tuohy, A. M., J. R. Skalski, and N. J. Gayeski. 2019. Survival of salmonids from an experimental commercial fish trap. Fisheries 44: 423–432.

Tuohy, A. M., J. R. Skalski, and A. T. Jorgenson. 2020. Modified commercial fish trap to help eliminate salmonid bycatch mortality. North American Journal of Fisheries Management. DOI: 10.1002/nafm.10496.

Tuohy, A. M., N. J. Gayeski, and A. Jorgenson. 2020. Evaluation of pound nets as stock-selective fishing tools in the lower Columbia River sub-basin. Wild Fish Conservancy, Duvall, Washington.

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