The Fish Trap Project

A Wild Fish Recovery & Community Revitalization Project

In salmon fisheries throughout the Pacific coast, far too often threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead are harvested or die needlessly due to the limitations of today’s conventional fishing methods. This harm, known as bycatch mortality, undermines salmon recovery efforts, further reduces available prey for starving Southern Resident orcas, and constrains indigenous and commercial fisheries.

Searching for a solution to this dilemma, Wild Fish Conservancy began evaluating fish traps in 2016 to determine if this ancient fishing technique, used for thousands of years by indigenous communities for sustainable harvest, could be revitalized once again as an alternative commercial fishing method capable of aiding, not harming, the recovery of wild salmon and steelhead and providing new opportunities for coastal communities and their economies.

What is a fish trap?

A fish trap (also called a pound net) is a low-carbon commercial fishing strategy with potential for efficient harvest of targeted stocks and significant reductions in bycatch mortality of threatened and endangered populations.

How do modern fish traps work?

When migrating upstream, salmon and steelhead first encounter the ‘lead’- a long line of nets supported by untreated pilings that extend from the high-water mark down to the riverbed and are positioned perpendicular to shore. Searching for a route upstream, the fish swim freely into the ‘heart’, a large chamber that passively collects fish and funnels them into progressively smaller chambers until they reach the final chamber called the 'livewell'.

This final compartment, pictured above, has dimensions appropriate for operators to sort the catch for harvest or passive release with little to no air exposure and handling. Salmon and steelhead remain free-swimming the entire time they are within a fish trap and mesh dimensions of nets are selected to minimize or prevent entanglement altogether (in contrast with conventional commercial fishing gears which entangle the teeth and/or gills of all captured fishes, resulting in high rates of bycatch mortality).

Watch the video below to learn more about how fish traps work.

Fish Trap Research

Wild Fish Conservancy's fish trap research is helping to guide resource managers and policy makers as they work to implement alternative gear fisheries on the lower Columbia River and inspiring adoption of this model at a coastwide level.

Click below to learn about our fish trap research projects and objectives since 2016, including reports and publications, downloadable data sets, and more.

The Passive Capture Technique

With each year of research, our biologists continue to improve the fish trap’s design with the goal of further reducing the gear's impact on wild fish survival. Between 2019 and 2021, Wild Fish Conservancy tested an improved fish trap design using a ‘passive capture technique’ engineered to eliminate major factors associated with mortality in conventional fisheries, including exposure to air, overcrowding, human-handling, and contact with nets.

This revolutionary design allows salmon and steelhead that enter the fish trap to swim freely through a maze of nets until they reach a final chamber. The chamber is affixed with underwater cameras that allow the operator to identify the fish by species or origin (hatchery vs. wild) completely submerged and without handling. From here, targeted species can be selectively removed for harvest and threatened and endangered fish are released by opening a door in the chamber. Our published research demonstrated there was no measurable effect on the survival of fish released using this passive capture technique.


Wild Fish Conservancy's virtual field journal dedicated to sharing updates, photos, and stories straight from the deck of our fish trap projects.

Zero Bycatch Mortality

Fish traps release threatened and endangered salmon and steelhead unharmed. Our published research measuring the impact of fish traps on wild salmon and steelhead survival over space and time has shown fish traps can release fish with no measurable effect, or nearly 100% survival post-release.

helps wild fish recover

This selective fishing method allows harvestable healthy and hatchery runs to be selectively harvested, while threatened and endangered wild stocks are passively released unharmed to continue upriver to spawning grounds. 

In systems like the Columbia River with robust hatchery stocks, fish traps can further aid recovery efforts by harvesting hatchery-origin fish produced for harvest, thereby preventing them from reaching spawning grounds where they threaten the genetic fitness of wild fish and compete for resources

research and monitoring

The passive and low-impact nature of fish traps makes them excellent research stations and noninvasive tools to monitor run timing, run size, stock- composition, survival, fish behavior, genetics, PIT tags, and CWT’s.

Chinook & Orca Recovery

Unlike ocean fisheries which compete with or harvest Chinook before killer whales have a chance to feed, fish traps harvest in rivers where mature salmon and steelhead return and after the whales have fed. Reducing the number of Chinook harvested and incidentally killed in commercial salmon fisheries is widely recognized as one of the most critical steps to recovering threatened and endangered Chinook and Southern Resident killer whales.

Good for Fishers

Preserving Northwest Fisheries

By providing fishers a method to harvest with nearly zero impacts to threatened and endangered stocks, commercial fishers can fish healthy wild and hatchery stocks longer and more consistently. Most importantly, fishers can help preserve and sustain their local fisheries for future generations.

Sustainable Marketing

While many seafood products claim to be ‘sustainable’, this fishing method is tested and proven with published research to support. Fish traps can achieve sustainability certifications that lead to higher prices in a market that increasingly values a highly sustainable product, rewarding fishers transitioning to sustainable, selective fishing techniques.

High Quality

Fish traps allow fish to be passively harvested with extremely minimal handling, air exposure, and virtually no entanglement, resulting in minimal stress on the fish and a higher-quality salmon product relative to other gears.


In addition to sustainability certifications, fish harvested from fish traps in river systems may be certified or marketed with supporting data as ‘orca safe’ – further driving up the marketable price.

Help Conserve the Northwest's Iconic Wild Fish

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