COLUMBIA RIVER— Washington state is taking a historic step forward to legalize fish traps for sustainable commercial fishing on the Columbia River. This week, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) Director Kelly Susewind officially announced the agency has begun the process of designating an Emerging Commercial Fishery for alternative commercial fishing gear that will legalize fish traps (also known as pound nets). This decision will finally allow commercial fishers who strive to fish sustainably the choice to use contemporary fish traps as an alternative to gill nets in the lower Columbia River.
“This is a truly momentous win-win for wild fish, orcas, fishers, and coastal economies alike” said Kurt Beardslee, Director of Wild Fish Conservancy. “The benefits of this decision will be felt for generations throughout the Columbia River basin and beyond.”
In 1934, legislators banned fish traps and many other methods of salmon fishing in Washington State, making the gill net the only legal method of commercial salmon fishing in the lower Columbia River and elsewhere. This 87-year-old legislative decision has shaped management of the state’s salmon fisheries to this day.
Under current management of Columbia River salmon fisheries, the gill net is the only tool available for mixed-stock commercial harvest of salmon. Fisheries managers attempt to direct harvest efforts toward hatchery produced salmon; however, gill nets inevitably entangle federally protected wild fish that co-mingle in the fishery. These wild Chinook and coho salmon caught in commercial gill nets are authorized for harvest regardless of their status under the Endangered Species Act due to the low likelihood that released fish would survive to reach spawning grounds. Threatened steelhead bycatch are discarded overboard with significantly diminished chances of survival. 
“Under the status-quo, everyone is losing. Federally protected salmon are being harvested and sold, orcas that depend on healthy salmon runs are continuing to starve, fishing opportunities are being constrained, and coastal economies are struggling,” says Kurt Beardslee, Wild Fish Conservancy Director.
“By investing in the development of fishing techniques that can reduce or eliminate impacts to threatened wild fish while allowing for selective harvest of hatchery stocks, we are charting a new path forward for a sustainable and resilient fishery that will benefit wild fish, orcas, and generations to come.”
The decision to legalize fish traps is the result of over half a decade of successful research by Wild Fish Conservancy biologists in collaboration with commercial fishers, processors, and state and federal government officials to evaluate the potential of fish traps to operate as a sustainable commercial fishing tool that can aid wild salmon recovery and help revitalize coastal economies.
This research, published in prominent fisheries management journals, demonstrates the unique ability of fish traps to reduce bycatch mortality in commercial salmon fisheries. Utilizing a passive technique that addresses problems associated with conventional fishing gears, including net entanglement, human handling, air exposure, and overcrowding, fish traps are able to release wild salmon and steelhead with nearly 100% survival rates. Hatchery stocks produced for fisheries are selectively harvested for market, preventing the domesticated fishes from reaching spawning grounds where they compete with and harm the genetics of wild fish.
“Across the board, the fish trap appears to be the most promising tool available for capturing hatchery fishes for harvest while releasing wild salmon and steelhead mostly unharmed. What we’ve seen so far is just the tip of the iceberg—each year there are further improvements to the fishing gear that are reducing bycatch mortality effects, and I expect to see increased capture efficiency as well,” said Adrian Tuohy, Biologist with Wild Fish Conservancy.
In March, a group of 58 prominent salmon, steelhead, and killer whale scientists and advocates signed onto a letter emphasizing the importance of selective fishing techniques for wild fish recovery and urging WDFW’s Director to take action to legalize fish traps. This call to action was echoed by thousands of members of the public in letters, emails, phone calls, and a public petition to WDFW.
The Emerging Commercial Fishery process initiated by the agency this week will legalize the commercial use of fish traps at a localized-scale in the lower Columbia, allowing this promising gear to further improve as research continues, and demonstrate its potential as a sustainable, selective harvest and monitoring tool. The designation will begin with a rulemaking process that will lay the groundwork for the future fishery and develop a plan to support commercial fishers interested in transitioning.
“This decision by Director Susewind makes a lot of sense. Finally, there are multiple tools in the toolbox, allowing fishers and resource managers to adapt to the realities of the Endangered Species Act and the many unknowns of tomorrow,” said Tuohy.
Last week, the Washington State legislature passed a 2021-23 budget that included provisions that would allocate $2 million for a gill net buy back program along the Columbia River and would also reduce the number of salmon the fishery can harvest. Another bill introduced this year in the Oregon legislature proposed a straight ban on gill nets.
“Without legal and sustainable alternatives, reductions to the gill net fishery leave commercial fishers with no options,” says Beardslee. “Given this recent action by the legislature, its essential we work quickly to move through the Emerging Commercial Fishery designation process to ensure there is a sustainable and viable path forward for the Columbia River fishery.”
 Management agencies assume 55-62% survival rates for steelhead (TAC 2018; NMFS 2018), however post-release studies that measure the survival of steelhead released from gill nets over space and time have never been conducted. In contrast, approved fish trap survival rates are based on post-release studies that measured survival over a 400 km upstream migration.
Wild Fish Conservancy (WFC) is a nonprofit conservation ecology organization headquartered in Washington State and dedicated to preserving, protecting and restoring the northwest’s wild fish and the ecosystems they depend on, through science, education, and advocacy. WFC promotes technically and socially responsible habitat, hatchery and harvest management to better sustain the region’s wild-fish heritage.
- MEDIA TOOLKIT | Additional background information, photos, and other resources
- WATCH: The Fish Trap (2019) | A short film by North Fork Studios on WFC’s fish trap research
- www.thefishtrapjournal.org | An online field journal dedicated to sharing research and updates on WFC’s fish trap research
- Wild Fish Conservancy’s Published Fish Trap Research
- Letter to WDFW Director Susewind from 58 prominent scientists and advocates