A sustainable fishery is finally active on the Columbia River.

In 2016 and 2017, WFC biologists evaluated post-release survival of Chinook salmon and steelhead from an experimental fish trap. The research proved promising – with the results demonstrating great potential for fish traps to reduce bycatch and hatchery impacts in commercial salmon fisheries.

Gear Chinook Survival Steelhead Survival
Gillnet 0.520 0.555
Tangle Net 0.791 0.764
Beach Seine 0.750 (0.710 – 0.790) 0.920 (0.820 – 1.000)
Purse Seine 0.780 (0.720 – 0.850) 0.980 (0.930 – 1.000)
Fish Trap 0.995 (0.925 – 1.000) 0.944 (0.880 – 1.000)


Table 1. Lower Columbia River cumulative survival estimates from five different gear-types to McNary Dam and associated 95% confidence intervals (if available) (WDFW 2014; IFSP 2014; WDFW and ODFW Joint Staff 2018).

Now, momentum continues to grow for Wild Fish Conservancy’s effort to identify alternative sustainable harvest practices to gillnetting in the Columbia River.

This year, in a historic moment, Washington State wisely authorized implementation of the first commercial trap fishery since 1935.

WFC biologists have been working diligently with local fishermen, processors, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife in a collaborative effort to construct and operate a zero-carbon commercial trap fishery—the first of its kind in over 83 years. The stakes are high to build a firm foundation for this alternative fishery and to develop a reputation for a sustainable product that consumers can trust.

Securing the NOAA Fishery Service Bycatch Reduction Engineering Program Award two years in a row, WFC staff have applied their unique knowledge and experience to further improve the sustainability and efficiency of fish trap technology. Alongside local fishermen and processors, the staff is utilizing best harvest practices—including zero-carbon selective harvest, minimal handling, live-bleeding, and icing on site—to maximize quality for consumers and the price received. Through this careful process, WFC and partners are guaranteeing sustainability and quality while helping fishermen and processors receive the reward they deserve for helping with this important aspect of wild salmonid recovery. Furthermore, the trap is serving as a unique scientific monitoring tool within the lower river, providing data on genetics, stock-composition, run-timing, migration, behavior, and survival.

In terms of sustainability and consumer reliability, the results from the 2018 test fishery speak for themselves.

Since initiating the fishery in late August, 2726 salmonids have been safely captured and sorted. All hatchery salmon have been removed from the river, reducing the threat of genetic introgression with wild populations upstream, while all wild fish—including 1675 wild salmon and steelhead—were successfully released to continue their journey upriver. This is in stark contrast to conventional commercial fisheries of the Columbia, in which threatened wild salmon (along with mixed-runs of hatchery-origin salmon) are lethally entangled, harvested, and sold to consumers of the region. Furthermore, the fish trap is in the river rather than in salt water, ensuring that endangered Southern Resident killer whales can secure the food they need to survive. This means the trap fishery is both “wild salmon safe” and “orca safe”.

Unfortunately, the lower Columbia fishery experienced one of the worst salmon runs in history this year, with returns of Chinook, coho, and steelhead less than half of the most recent 10-year average. Given this unfortunate situation, the urgent need for sustainable alternatives to gillnetting could not be greater. With such diminished runs of wild fish, genetic impacts from rampant hatchery production are bound to be worse than before. In the absence of curbed hatchery production and substantially reduced commercial and recreational harvest, a tool is urgently needed that will selectively remove hatchery salmon and minimize mortality to threatened wild fish; otherwise, we risk the loss of wild fish populations and genetic diversity that is essential to long-term recovery and adaptation to global climate change.

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WFC’s collaborative project with local fishers, processors, and WDFW brings hope to an otherwise bleak situation on the Columbia.

The project represents a remarkable step forward for sustainable salmon fisheries in the region and a way forward for wild fish, fishermen, and killer whales. This model fishery has applications far and wide, providing a solution for bycatch issues within non-hatchery supplemented watersheds and situations involving invasive species or hatchery introgression. While benefiting wild salmon and their ecosystems, implementation of traps can help increase presently constrained commercial and tribal fishing opportunities and benefit coastal communities of the region.

After years of hard work, a sustainable fishery is finally active on the Columbia River and a reliable product is available to consumers at Pike Place Market and a market near you.

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