Fish traps of past may help future of Columbia salmon

Once-outlawed tactic tested with goal of preserving wild runs

By Terry Otto, Columbian staff writer

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The Wild Fish Conservancy in partnership with other conservation groups has spent two seasons employing test fish traps on the Columbia River near Cathlamet.

The once-outlawed commercial fishing technique has been generating fresh interest in the face of declining wild salmon runs and might offer a less lethal way of handling wild salmon while harvesting hatchery fish for the consumer.

Fish traps were once used broadly in the Northwest during the early part of the last century to harvest salmon for the canneries, but they were eventually outlawed because they caught too many fish.

Ken Boddington, 86, still remembers when he helped his father and grandfather operate fish traps on the lower Columbia from 1943 to 1948. Boddington was only 12 when he began helping in the family’s commercial salmon fishing business.

“We moved down to St. Helens, Oregon, after fish traps were outlawed in Washington in 1935,” said Boddington, explaining that his family had used the traps in Puget Sound for decades. “We had a trap near Warrior Rock and one at Willow Bar.”

He helped work the traps for six years. They had to install the trap every year and tear it out after the season, including the pylons, and without the use of power tools. He says a typical haul was about 30,000 salmon and steelhead in one or two days of operations.

Often referred to as “pound traps,” the old technology has regained some interest after the Wild Fish Conservancy test-ran the fish traps and recorded extremely low levels of post-handling fish mortality.

Currently commercial fishermen in the lower Columbia River employ tangle-nets to catch hatchery salmon for the market. However, protected and endangered wild salmon are also caught, and must be handled carefully when released. If not the catch mortality runs too high and the fisheries are closed.

According to Kurt Beardslee, the Executive Director for the Wild Fish Conservancy, many people were initially skeptical about the prospect of using fish traps.

“Once they see how the whole thing operates it has been well received,” he said. “We think this may have a place in future commercial fisheries.”

Beardslee points to a number of advantages, including less mortality from handling, better wild fish recovery, and the possibility of gaining sustainability certification. That would allow fishers to charge more for their catch.

However, will today’s commercial anglers embrace the technology? That depends on many as-yet unanswered questions.

Jim Wells is a member of the lower Columbia River gill-net fleet, and after the conservation group published its findings on the traps he did a little bit of research. Using the catch data from the trap, he figured just how many sell-able fish they had caught during this last season.

After taking out the numbers of steelhead and un-harvestable wild fish, and accounting for the prevalence and low price for the Tule strain Chinook, an early run Chinook of low quality, he computed the possible take at about $64,000 dollars.

“This group used grant money to put the trap up,” he said. “They also used volunteers to operate it.”

The setup costs were over $400,000, and that cost does not figure in the labor to work the trap. This kind of cost puts it beyond the range of most small-time commercial fishermen. Only a big operation could handle the expenses.

“It would be hard for the average gill-netter to compete with anyone that could afford to construct (the trap),” Wells said. “It would be like Walmart driving out all the small mom and pop businesses.”

“It’s important to note that we are not against the testing, but it’s not an economical replacement for gill nets,” Wells added.

Some sport anglers are skeptical, too. Yakima Bait’s Buzz Ramsey expressed a desire to see better methods used to harvest fish commercially, but worries about the effects for sport anglers. The concern is that too few fish would be available for sport harvest after the traps take their catch.

“There is some apprehension out there,” said Ramsey. “What does this do to sportsmen that fish the tributaries upstream?”

Liz Hamilton is the Executive Director for the Northwest Sportfishing Industry Association. While she says the traps have potential, there are some doubts.

“The jury is still out on the ecological and economic benefits of the traps,” Hamilton said, “but it could possibly be added to the suite of tools used for wild fish recovery.”

Still, she said that the restoration of salmon runs will not be accomplished simply by addressing any single component.

“There is no silver bullet for salmon recovery,” she adds.

Whether or not the traps become a fixture in the lower Columbia will be answered in the future, but the exercise has brought back fond memories for Boddington.

“It was a great experience as a kid to learn how to do it,” he said.