OLYMPIA - A test fishery involving an experimental net designed to increase the survival rate of fish returned to the water got under way this week in Willapa Bay.
Three local gillnetters under contract with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) began fishing at the mouths of the Willapa and Naselle rivers with customized nets, half of which are rigged as traditional gillnets and the other half as "tangle nets."
The main advantage of tangle nets over traditional gillnets is that they do not smother salmon by compressing their gills, said Geraldine Vander Haegen, the WDFW fish biologist who is supervising the test fishery. Instead, salmon become entangled in the small, loose weave of the tangle net and can be disengaged with relative ease.
"We'll be testing both the survival rate of salmon released from the nets and their actual effectiveness in catching fish," Vander Haegen said. "By rigging each net half-and-half, we should get a pretty good comparison."
Vander Haegen said tangle nets are already being used on a voluntary basis in British Columbia and could become popular here - if they pass muster.
"In the new era of selective fisheries, it is becoming increasingly important for fishers to be able to target certain species and release non-targeted species unharmed," Vander Haegen said. "If we can find ways to improve survival rates, we may ultimately be able to open more areas to fishing that would otherwise remain closed.
Salmon caught during the test fishery will be released unless they die in the nets, in which case they will be donated to a food bank, she said.
Vander Haegen noted that test fisheries using tangle nets recently have been conducted in both northern and southern Puget Sound but said the agency is committed to conducting the tests over a broad geographical area.
"As fishers know, conditions vary from one area to the next, and we plan to take that into consideration," she said.
The test fishery at the mouth of the Willapa River (Area 2G) will end Saturday, Sept. 16, prior to the commercial coho opening Sept. 17. The test fishery at the mouth of the Naselle River will run through the end of October.
Vander Haegen said WDFW also plan to test a second type of experimental gear - the floating fish trap - in Willapa Bay, beginning in late September or early October.
"It's a different type of gear entirely, but the principle is the same," she said. "Improve survival rates and allow a more selective fishery."