For more information on
Commercial Selective
Fishing, please contact


Selective Fishing Methods

There are many different gears that can be used to fish selectively- the characteristics they all have in common is that the fish must be caught live so that it can be released live. Many of the gears historically used for harvest are being reconsidered for selective fishing. For example, traps and fish wheels were common in Willapa Bay and the Columbia River. In the past decade, British Columbia has vigorously researched the effectiveness and cost of using a variety of selective fishing methods. Some of these selective fishing techniques included: floating traps, fish wheels, tangle nets, and modifications to seine nets.

Based on results from British Columbian studies, WDFW is evaluating the effectiveness of tangle nets and trap nets, two very promising selective fishing techniques, to determine which might enhance fishing opportunities while allowing the recovery of native salmon stocks.

Tangle net (at right) vs. conventional gill net (at left). Note larger mesh size of conventional netting compared with tangle net
Tangle net (at right) vs. conventional gill net (at left). Note larger mesh size of conventional netting compared with tangle net. Photo courtesy of: OR Dept. of Fish and Wildlife, Columbia R. Mgmt. Office.
The same boats used by fishers to operate gill nets can be used to fish using tangle nets
The same boats used by fishers to operate gill nets can be used to fish using tangle nets, making tangle nets a potentially viable alternative to traditional gill netting practices

Tangle Net (also known as the Tooth Net)

Application: Very similar to fishing with gill nets, usable in bays and rivers.

Description: Similar to a gill net, the tangle net has smaller web (mesh size = 3.5 to 4.5 inches) than its counterpart and catches fish by the teeth or maxillary rather than by the gills (as does the gill net); this capture strategy allows non-targeted species of fish to be caught and released live, with minimal injury. Tangle nets are constructed of multi-stranded nylon.

Status: The tangle net is being evaluated in Puget Sound, Willapa Bay, and the Columbia River, and was adopted for a 2001 sockeye fishery on the Columbia River. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and Fisheries and Oceans Canada are also exploring the use of the tangle net as an alternative gear to traditional gill nets, and the net is gaining interest throughout the Pacific Northwest as a tool to collect salmon broodstock for restoration programs.

Limitations: Because of its smaller mesh size, the tangle net captures small non-target species that were not previously encountered with larger-meshed gill nets. This increases the work required in picking the net, may negatively affect the survival of stocks of concern, and may negatively affect the populations of other species. Tangle net fisheries must be managed to minimize encounters with these non-target species. This can be accomplished by moving boats away from areas where large numbers are encountered, by planning fisheries around migrations of non-target species, or by planning concurrent fisheries on those species when appropriate.

Floating Fish Trap

Floating fish trap
Model of floating fish trap

Floating fish trap
Floating fish trap

Photos courtesy of: Fred Hawkshaw

Application: Can be fished in bays and rivers with boats typically used for gillnetting.

Description: Funnel-like in shape, this trap is set by placing the mouth of the trap facing upstream or downstream of the current; fish enter the mouth, are directed through a series of ever-restrictive mesh boxes, and become entrapped when they reach a mesh cage at the end (the "cod-end"). Web at the mouth of the trap is 8 inches that decreases to 2.5 inches at the cod-end. Because captured fish never come in direct contact with the net, they are in perfect condition and can either be harvested or released live.

Status: While fish traps (of any design) were historically common in Washington, they are currently illegal for harvest. The floating fish trap is being tested, but is not yet effective for harvest.

Limitations: In most cases, requires two boats to operate, catch rates have been low, and initial investment in the trap is high.

Fish Wheel

Fish wheel
Fish wheel. Photo courtesy of: Craig Orr, British Columbia Aboriginal Fisheries Commission

Application: Large rivers or other bodies of water with sufficient current to turn the fish wheel and stable water levels.

Description: Placed in waters with suitable river currents and positioned in high fish traffic areas, fish wheels allow the "low impact" capture of non-target species. Wire baskets form the wheel and are positioned around a central axis; their sidewalls radiate outward from the axis and form the "spokes" of the wheel. River currents push the mesh on the basket, causing the wheel to turn. A lead line is placed to direct fish to the basket where the fish is lifted into the air, slides down one of the basket walls, and is deposited into a holding pen. Fish are then sorted by species; non-target species are released, usually unharmed.

Status: Currently, fishers in British Columbia and Alaska are using fish wheels for commercial fishing and stock assessment. Fish wheels are also being tried in Washington for stock assessment, but not for commercial harvest. About 100 years ago, fish wheels were common on the Columbia River and very effectively harvested salmon. The fascinating history of fish wheels in Washington can be found in Fishwheels on the Columbia written by Ivan J. Donaldson (Binford & Mort Pub., 1971).

Limitations: Initial large expenditure for construction and permitting. Limited mobility to change fishing locations. Successful operation of a fish wheel is very dependent on fishing site selection, one with sufficient water flow and optimal salmon migration conditions.

Reef Nets

Commercial Reef fishers
Reef fishers. Photo courtesy of: Judy and Riley

Application: In the U.S., reefnetting is unique to the straits and bays around Lummi Island and the San Juan Islands in the Pacific Northwest.

Description: Reef netting is a specialized system of fishing that derives from ancient methods used by Native Americans. Often, as was done historically, fishing in this manner involves a "community" approach: fishers establish a series of reefs anchored adjacent to one another in traditional reef-fishing sites. These artificial reefs are constructed from a network of ropes disguised with ribbons of "sea camouflage" to imitate cover provided by natural reefs formed by kelp or other aquatic plants: habitat that attracts salmon. This imitation reef leads directly into a net held between two fishing boats, each equipped with observation towers. The fishers wait from these towers, their gazes searching to see salmon as they swim from the reef and cross the outer edge of the net. Once the fish swim over this line, fishers immediately swing into action, using winches and manual labor to haul in the nets and sort their resulting catch.

Status: Developed by Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest, the practice of reefnetting has changed over time. Use of canoes has been replaced with long scows, and live reefs with artificial. Still, the method has changed little. Commercial reefnetting is uniquely employed by fishers in the Lummi Islands and San Juan Islands.

Limitations: Applicable in bays and straits. Need at least two boats to operate net. Nets usually operated during floodtides and in daylight to catch fish. Unwieldy anchors, commonly weighing six tons, are needed to secure artificial reefs to their fishing site.

Beach seining

Pulling Beach seine
Pulling Beach seine
Beach seining
Beach seining

Application: This method works well in lakes, bays, and slow moving rivers with sandy bottoms.

Description: A webbed net, rectangular in shape, deep enough to touch the river bottom and of variable length. To operate, one end of the net is anchored to the shore; using a boat, the opposite end is pulled in a semicircle away from the beach; this end is then pulled upstream and back to the shore to completely form a webbed circle. Gradually, the ends of this circle are tightened into smaller circles until the entrapped fish are accessible for sorting. As long as the net is not pulled out of the water, non- target species can be released unharmed.

Status: Currently, beach seining is being used for selective fishing by fishers in Washington and British Columbia.

Limitations: For larger net, requires sufficient manpower or mechanized equipment to fish; net may easily snag on rough river bottoms. Site selection is critical to the success of beach seining.

Trolling on the PacificTrolling on the Pacific. Photo courtesy of: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration/Dept. of Commerce

Application: Commercial trolling activities for salmon work well in large bodies of water (ocean) in areas where salmon migrate.

Description: Like sport fishers, to catch fish, troll fishers use baited hooks or bright, shiny lures connected to long fishing lines. Typically, trollers slowly travel through the water, baited lines trailing behind them. Bait type and fishing line arrangements used for trolling vary depending on the targeted fish species.

Status: Currently, troll fisheries in the U.S. and Canada are developing means to make their methods more selective. These changes include: use of barbless hooks, changing spacing between hooks on fishing gear to avoid species migration patterns, use of recovery boxes on board, and immediate release of captured fish.