Fishing Gear Gets a Valuable Update

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New fishing pot targets lingcod, leaves other fish behind

Written by Jodie Toft, Senior Marine Ecologist
Photographs by (1) Tim Calver ; (2) Eva Funderburgh / Flickr Creative Commons

This post is about fishing. Really.

First, though, imagine you have a blueberry farm (this is Washington, after all). Now imagine that you can only harvest a few of the blueberries that are ripe for the picking.

Why? Because you only have a big, heavy rake for harvesting - it breaks the branches, strips off the unripe berries, squishes the ripe berries and knocks loose beehives hidden in the bushes. Wouldn’t it be nice if you could get those blueberries some other way?

Off the west coast of the United States, our fishermen are faced with a similar challenge, metaphorically. Millions of pounds of fish that have been given the green light for harvest by scientists and managers are left in the water.

The issue is complex - there are fish to catch and fish to avoid; places and habitats on the seafloor that recover quickly from certain types of fishing and those that do not; large swaths of the ocean that are closed to fishing with certain types of gear; and coastal communities and economies that are increasingly compromised by the revenue that isn’t being generated from fishing.

But complexities aside, a glance in the fishermen’s gearshed offers up what The Nature Conservancy and fishermen see as one of the simple solutions. It’s what’s not in the gearshed that stands out. What’s not there is gear that can be used in rocky habitats to catch the fish we want without catching those we don’t want.

In a collaborative approach to marine conservation, the Conservancy began working with fishermen in Washington and Oregon in 2014 to fill this empty nook in the gearshed. We see the solution in the form of a new type of fishing pot used to catch a high-value fish – lingcod – that occurs in the same rocky habitats as yelloweye and canary rockfish, whose low quotas currently constrain the fishery.

While we apply for permits to test the fish pots in rocky areas currently off limits, we are testing the gear in nearby areas replete with another high-value species – sablefish. And so far sablefish love the new pots, preferring them well over twice as much as the original pots!

And those fish that we didn’t want to catch? Of the ~2,000 fish we caught, there were only 2 canary rockfish and no yelloweye rockfish. Stay tuned as we move closer to lingcod-laden waters and see how much the new pot can be part of the solution.

In the meantime, enjoy the blueberries!