Back in the 19th century, fish traps brought in big hauls of Columbia River salmon. Retooled for the 21st century, could they be part of a more sustainable future for commercial harvests?
CATHLAMET, Wahkiakum County — More than eight decades after their demise, fish traps are getting a fresh look from researchers convinced they offer a more sustainable way to catch Columbia River salmon.
These traps are formed by nets attached to pilings that gently guide the fish into a kind of underwater corral. Wild fish protected under the federal Endangered Species Act can be released to resume their upstream journey, while their more abundant hatchery brethren are sent to the processors.
“It’s the future,” said Kurt Beardslee, executive director of the Wild Fish Conservancy. “We’re going to have use gear that is selective … There is no way around that.”
Back in the late 19th century heyday of Columbia River harvests, some canneries and fishermen deployed fish traps to catch as many salmon as possible.
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The traps had plenty of passionate critics who said the huge hauls helped to collapse the once abundant wild runs. In 1934, Washington voters approved a ballot measure to outlaw their use while continuing the commercial harvests with boat fishermen who unfurl gillnets in the river.
During the 2016 and 2017 late summer and fall harvest seasons, fish that swam into the trap were tallied by species, then all were released. Some got outfitted with electronic tags so their survival rates could be tracked as they moved upstream past dams outfitted with monitoring equipment.
“Only show in town”
The Wild Fish Conservancy worked in partnership with Blair Peterson, a commercial fisherman on the Columbia. Peterson’s grandfather once used a fish trap, and he has long been interested in a test on a quiet river side-channel close by his family property a few miles upstream from Cathlamet.
The fish trap benefitted from Peterson’s knowledge and old blueprints of those erected in a bygone era. But it was still a “huge challenge” to build a device that hadn’t operated on the Columbia in more than 80 years, said Adrian Tuohy, a Wild Fish Conservancy biologist who headed up the project team.
The trap herds fish into a small area known as “the spiller” with a nylon mesh bottom and sides. Then, a mechanical winch lifts up the mesh and transfers the fish to a sorting pool — known as the live well — where they can be tagged and released.
During the second season of operations, the trap was improved. with the installation of a metal gate to keep out hungry sea lions, and changes in the net that dramatically increased its efficiency.
In five weeks of operations in 2017, the trap caught more than 7,000 salmon and steelhead, more than triple the numbers of the year before.
The hatchery fish are marked by clipped fins, so they can be distinguished from wild salmon. In the future, the goal would be to harvest the hatchery stocks from the traps, while releasing the wild fish that are the focus of multibillion-dollar efforts to rebuild their runs.
“From my point of view this is the only show in town,” said Peterson as five coho milled around the trap on the final day operations for the 2017 season. “This has lived up above and beyond my expectations.”
More than 99.8 percent of the fish survived the initially handling, according to the Wild Fish Conservancy. Researchers hope that the tagging will show a 95 percent long-term survival rate, but the results have not been completed.
A fish trap could be built at an estimated cost of about $90,000, according to the Wild Fish Conservancy.
Bill Tweit, a state biologist, said that “it’s really heartening” to see the success of this year’s operations, and that traps could be a critical part of the long-term strategy for catching more of the hatchery fish.
But the traps are only one of several options that have been considered by the state Fish and Wildlife Commission for removing more hatchery fish. Other experiments have involved catching salmon with purse-seine and beach-seine nets that encircle the fish but don’t snare them by the gills.
During the past harvest season, Wild Fish Conservancy staff, who set up a camp site on the shore by the fish trap, were eager to show off their project to boaters who dropped by to take a look.
Beardslee thinks that fishermen and a processor could join together to operate a fish trap, and that the harvest could get a sustainable certification that would increase the market value.
If fish traps regain a place on the Columbia, Beardslee hopes they could gain wider acceptance in other West Coast fisheries where it’s important to protect weak wild stocks.
But plenty of gill-netters remain cool to the idea of legalizing gear that their predecessors fought to ban.
Greg Johnson, a Columbia River gill-netter who lives in Vancouver, says that many question remain to be answered about the economics and impacts of a fish trap. He also is wary of a cooperative approach to fishing that would require everyone to divide up their catch.
“It is pretty tough for a guy sitting in my shoes to see opportunity,” Johnson said.
Sport fishermen also are monitoring the trap operations.
Their groups have long lobbied to push gill-netters off the Columbia to expand the recreational catch. Some take a favorable view of the fish-trap experiment.
“It was a pretty impressive year, for sure. They’re off to a good start,” said Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders, which represents some 1600 regional sport fishermen and guides. “Conservation is priority number one.”
At the end of the September, the nets were removed from the trap’s piling, and the Wild Fish Conservancy biologists called it a season.
Beardslee hopes that there will be funds available to continue research, and that the fish trap will be up and running again next year.
Correction: The dateline in a previous version of this story misstated the county where Cathlamet, Wahkiakum County, is located.