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Commercial Selective Fishing in Washington State

Purse Seining on the Lower Columbia River
Click on photos to enlarge - Photo by Wild Fish Conservancy

Small purse seine on the Lower Columbia River.  The net is deployed out in a large circle and ready to be drawn “pursed” in.

The net is pulled in tighter, bringing any salmon in the net closer to the boat.

Fish are able to swim freely while crew members sort through them.

Salmon can be sorted via dip net enabling us to release wild fish unharmed.

Salmon hold a special place in Washington, largely owing to their importance as food but also as integral components of the natural environment we cherish. Numerous Native American tribes have been sustained by the runs of salmon returning to our rivers, either by direct harvest or by trade. Since the early 1800s, many nations, including the United States, developed commercial fleets to harvest salmon using a variety of different gears. Gill nets, seines and trolling gears are all familiar parts of our Northwest heritage. Other gears like reef nets, dip nets, and fish traps predate the arrival of Europeans, and are still used today. Fish wheels were common on the Columbia River before the construction of the dams, and were very effective harvest tools. They faded into history in the early 1900's.

What is selective fishing?

One way fishers can contribute to the recovery of weak stocks is by the use of selective fishing techniques. Selective fishing is the ability of a fishing operation to avoid non-target species or stocks, or when encountered, to release those animals alive and unharmed. Successful selective fishing requires that two objectives be met. First, the conservation goal must be achieved for the species or stock of concern, and second, there is a harvest goal that must be met to make the fishery economically viable.

The two components of selective fishing, avoidance, and live release, are managed very differently.


As salmon migrate back to their spawning grounds, they spend part of the time intermingled with different species and stocks, and part of the time separated from other species or stocks. To protect weak stocks in the presence of commercial fisheries, all of the fleets in Washington are presently managed by time and area closures that restrict the fleet to particular areas or times so that they avoid weak stocks or species. From this perspective, our commercial fleets are already fishing very selectively.

Avoidance very effectively meets the conservation goal because few or no encounters with fishing gears means very low harvest-related mortality. When there are few weak stocks to protect, time and area closures can also effectively meet the harvest goal. However, when many stocks require protection, time and area closures can severely limit fishing and make it very difficult for our fishers to make a living. This is the situation we have in Washington. Our fleets are experiencing unprecedented restrictions even though we have many healthy stocks of wild and hatchery salmon returning. Additionally, because there is insufficient harvest on the hatchery runs, thousands of excess, or "surplus", fish return to our hatcheries or to the spawning grounds rather than being caught for their intended purpose: fisheries.

Live Release

Selective fishing by avoidance means that there are healthy populations of fish that are not harvested because they are intermingled with weak stocks or species that require protection. If we wish to maintain harvest on the healthy stocks, we must find ways to do so that will allow live release of the non-target species or stock.

Because the modern methods of commercial fishing did not focus on live release of non-target species or stocks, efforts are underway to modify our current fishing gears and practices so that the fish are captured live and can be sorted for harvest or release.

Targeting Hatchery-Reared Stocks

Each year, Washington hatcheries raise and release millions of coho and Chinook salmon to increase commercial and sports fishing opportunities. These hatchery fish are released into the wild where they interact with stocks of wild fish. Most coho and many Chinook reared at WDFW hatcheries are mass-marked by the removal of the adipose fin. This allows us to distinguish between wild and hatchery fish. To preserve wild fish, WDFW encourages the harvest of hatchery fish while leaving the wild fish in the oceans and rivers to allow them to survive and spawn.