Pioneering Pontoons in Puget Sound

GAP2 Comms Officer, Katrina Borrow, recently took part in one of GAP2’s 2014 exchange trips – visiting the sockeye salmon fishery in Puget Sound, near Seattle in the US. Back from her overseas adventure, in this blog Katrina goes into the background of the exchange, and an eye-opening experience on a ‘reef net’.

Home-grown experimentation leading the way on international efforts to reduce bird bycatch

Rex and Rory enjoying GAP2 exchange!

Rex and Rory enjoying GAP2 exchange!

I have recently returned from a GAP2 exchange trip to the incredible waters of Puget Sound, Washington State. The week-long adventure was planned by Birdlife International’s Rory Crawford to explore bird bycatch mitigation measures employed in the Sound’s famous salmon fishery. Funded by GAP2 (in the name of international knowledge exchange), our investigation centred upon the almost unwittingly cutting-edge experimentation of a Yorkshire fisherman: Rex Harrison.

With the incidental mortality of birds in Filey’s fishing (gill) nets at a high level, and facing the closure of a fishery that his family had worked in for over four generations, Rex has reinvented himself as the ultimate fisher-conservationist. Contributing knowledge cultivated over an entire lifetime at sea (Rex can tell you what the weather is going to be like, based only on the calls made by passing oyster catchers in flight), he began to alter the design of the gill net he uses to catch Atlantic Salmon and Sea Trout.

Testing a number of methods, including reverting to the same type of net his father had used when he fished the Filey Bay, and using a range of different coloured corks to float his nets, Rex and his fellow Filey fishermen – there are just seven licenses in the bay – have reduced their annual bycatch from 600 to 50 seabirds.

The start of a partnership 

This work has not gone unnoticed by conservation groups, and the RSPB – after initially being interested in the fishery due to its particularly poor bycatch record – became intrigued by Rex’s experimentation in this area, and the results it was producing. After all: Birdlife International (a global conservation partnership, of which the RSPB is the UK host) conservatively estimates that 400,000 diving seabirds are killed in gill net fisheries globally, each year.

Some of the vessels from the Puget Sound Fleet

Some of the vessels from the Puget Sound Fleet

With that statistic in mind, it is perhaps even more shocking that this is a profoundly under-researched area. CUE: GAP2 exchange!

This exchange was such an exciting project for exactly this reason: GAP2 was funding the first steps in Birdlife International actively developing a global scheme for mitigating seabird bycatch in gill net fisheries. Better yet: Birdlife are clearly tackling this issue with a real interest in tapping into the invaluable resource of fishers’ traditional ecological knowledge (TEK), and actively collaborating with fishermen around the world in developing such measures – very much in line with GAP2’s participatory ethos.

So, on to the exchange itself – who took part, what did we get up to, and precisely why? 

Well, with Rory Crawford’s blog up next – with plenty of detail on the science we uncovered on the trip and the gear innovations that have made the Puget Sound salmon fishery a pioneer (like Filey) in preventing seabird deaths in fishing – I won’t go too much into the day-to-day of our Stateside experience.

In short, however: Rory, Rex and I had one exceptionally busy week – meeting with the full ‘GAP2 spectrum’ of scientists, fishers, and policy-makers, and visiting a range of different fisheries. A particular highlight for me was the zero bycatch, spectacularly selective ‘Reefnet’ fishery off Lummi Island, near Bellingham, WA.


Reef net fishers hauling in the catch – mostly ‘Coho’ salmon

I think all three of us were astonished to see the set-up of the fishery – with floating pontoons, nets suspended in the water between each pair, and fishermen sitting atop 15ft ladders, looking down into the water to spot migrating salmon swimming into the mouth of their ‘reef nets’. Whenever fish swam into the net, the peace of the pontoon was abruptly disturbed by solar-power winches drawing the net up and out of the water. At this point, the fishers (I won’t say ‘fishermen’ because there were plenty of fisherwomen in the Puget Sound!) would leap down from their ladders, haul in the final section of the net and inspect their catch – any wild fish, non-target fish or fish that were not currently ‘open season’ were immediately returned to the sea, completely unharmed. The remaining hatchery-born salmon (identified by a notch in the tailfin) were then carefully removed and placed straight into a floating tank of seawater.

Admittedly, this is a system that can only work on a known migratory route for fish, given that the pontoons are static and remain in place all year round. However, seeing such a selective and sustainable fishery in action – and a kind of gear that none of us were familiar with – was remarkable, and the three of us couldn’t stop talking about it for the rest of the trip. From my perspective, it really energised the group throughout the exchange, and opened our eyes to the huge range of lessons to be learnt from this fishery thousands of miles from home.

I’ll leave it there for now – but should you want to find out more about the GAP2 exchange programme, or this trip in particular, do get in touch:

Look out for Rory’s blog, up next on here on the GAP2 site. Meanwhile, I include a number of photographs I took during the trip. Enjoy!

@GAP2_Project / #GAP2exchange 


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