Commercial Fisheries, Salmon, and Orcas

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Turn on any health/talk show, and it is not long before your might hear the host touting the benefit of eating salmon. We are told that the fats present in salmon and a few other species of fish are good for our hearts, and it is recommended that we eat moderate portions of those fish twice a week.

That is all well and good…except there are so many mouths to feed; over 300 million Americans at present, and nearly 7 billion people on the planet. If even just 10% of us eat salmon twice a week, we are talking about a tremendous amount of fish. How in the world will we ever manage to catch enough? Can we? It would seem that much is riding on the ability of the commercial fishermen and women to provide us with the salmon we need, yet leave some for the orcas, without driving wild salmon to extinction. It’s a tall order.

To give us the perspective of Puget Sound commercial fisheries, commercial fisherman Robert Sudar has agreed to share his experience and expertise. He started his fishing career almost 40 years ago, and has served as commercial adviser to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife for the last 20 years. His comments to previous posts have been very informative (as have several others – all comments are important, this is a community forum), so I asked permission to re-post them here in part.

Below are my questions about fishing methods and the constraints upon the fisheries, followed by his answers (again, these were taken from a series of comments made previously):

J pod with fishing boat (Photo by Stewart Macintyre)

On commercial salmon fishing methods:

Purse seines are used in Puget Sound and are a primary harvest method there along with gillnets. Purse seines have corks on top and a lead line along the bottom, too, but the mesh size in the net is smaller and the twine used to make it is much heavier because it doesn’t matter if the fish can see it. Two boats (one larger 40′-65′ vessel and one smaller skiff) are used to lay the net out in front of the salmon’s path in roughly a half-circle. The ends are then brought together and a nylon line that runs through rings attached to the lead line is brought on-board, drawing the bottom of the net together like the closure on some purses, hence the name of this method. The fish are trapped inside (unless they swam out before the bottom was closed) and the net is brought onboard from one end. The portion in the water is progressively reduced until the fish are contained in a heavier portion at the very end, at which point they are lifted onto the larger vessel.

A few points about commercial fishing in Puget Sound and the Columbia River:

There hasn’t been a directed non-Indian commercial harvest of Chinook or Coho in Puget Sound since Bern Shanks made them sport-priority species in the early 1990s. I’m pretty sure there is still an Indian harvest, but non-Indian commercials would need a very specific condition to receive a harvest share in a given year. On the Columbia, we avoided that draconian measure because Chinook and Coho are our primary species. However, we have very specific harvest quotas for each run and don’t ever fish a lot of days, so our impact is very controlled and very measurable, and is usually not a mixed-stock fishery, which is one thing the ocean troll fisheries can’t claim. Harvest is always the place that gets looked at first for cutbacks because it’s the easiest place to look and it’s the only one that Fish and Wildlife has any control over. Harvest keeps getting cut back (both sport and commercial) with only slow (or no) improvements in runs – that should make it pretty clear that harvest isn’t the limiting factor.

On by-catch:

For instance, specific studies were done on the Columbia River for spring Chinook to compare survival of salmon caught in a conventional gillnet versus one caught in a newer style tangle net, where the mesh is smaller but there is more web per foot of corkline, so the fish are caught in more of a blanket of net instead of by the gills. The water is cold in the spring and the net is only kept in the water for 45 minutes. The long-term survival rate of the Chinook caught and released from the conventional gillnet was 60% (i.e. 40% mortality) and for the tangle net it was 85.3% survival (14.7% mortality). Those numbers would not be as good in the warmer river waters of summer and early fall.

I wonder, how hard is it for a commercial fisherman/woman to switch their methods? I suppose it depends upon if someone is making a relatively easy switch – from gill nets to tangle nets for example – versus a more radical change. Do you think that is a viable solution though, to switch to methods with the highest survival of incidental catch?

Those are issues we discuss frequently, both with managers and amongst ourselves. There is a lot of skill involved in being a commercial fisherman – you don’t just stick out a net and reap the harvest. It can be hard to believe that you wouldn’t catch a single fish in 1500-1800′ of net, but it happens a lot. Switching methods can involve a tough learning curve, and there is precious little time during the short harvest seasons to practice and develop those skills.

It’s important to also remember that fishing is a business. If the fisherman can’t make enough money to pay for the investment, why could he be expected to make the change? For instance, gillnet boats are 24-32′ long. The nets vary by location, and it takes several to fish for different species, but they are much less expensive than purse seine nets. Boats for purse seining are much larger (40-65′, plus a smaller skiff) and more expensive, and typically the owner gets 2/3 of the catch. One person can run a gill-netter, or at most 2 people. A purse seiner requires 3-5. That means you have to catch a lot more fish. There are also higher insurance costs, and it takes a firm commitment from the crew to be available for the sudden nature of fishery openings or else no one fishes.

Do you know if the government helps subsidize the costs of changing methods, much like it does for farmers? I know there is some disaster relief funding available, but is there a program specifically designed to help fishermen and women ‘re-tool’, so to speak?

As far as government support goes, there is no funding for new gear, though the government has contributed to gear studies, such as those that were used to determine mortality rates for tangle nets. The fishermen built the nets under the premise that if they improved their methods they would be allocated more fish. In reality, they made the changes but Fish and Wildlife has instead been reducing their harvest share over the past 8 years. There is no program in place that I know of that would fund boats and gear if a new method is required, but there is a study in place to see if some new proposed methods will work. It takes 5-10 years to successfully test the viability of new methods.

Finally, what do you think is the single most important thing commercial fisheries can do on their own to help restore salmon populations? Anything – from using spare time to help with habitat restoration to lobbying for dam removal as a group – (not just changing fishing methods, which I can see may not be practical).

Commercial and sport fisheries have all made significant contributions toward salmon recovery because as I’ve mentioned before, they are the only user groups that the managers can effectively cut back to increase salmon survival – they have little effective control over municipal water use and quality, logging, mining, agriculture or similar issues that impact water and salmon. But both user groups can play a role in keeping the larger public aware of the special nature of the salmon resource in the Northwest, by being advocates for the resource and by making a portion of the resource available for the public to share and enjoy. (By Robert Sudar)

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