The image was riveting: mile after mile of driftnet being hauled aboard a vast ship, its ghastly bounty of drowned porpoises, sea lions, turtles flopping dead onto the enormous deck like Raggedy Anne dolls. The implication was clear: the very life and health of our seas was being squandered to enable a few greedy fishermen to ply their trade.

American (commercial) fishermen, as horrified by this pointless destruction and waste as other Americans, financed the documentation of it themselves. Occurring hundreds of miles from any shore and only on foreign ships, the images had to be brought home to motivate the government to act. And now, nearly ten years later, international treaties and compacts have all but eliminated this wasteful activity.

Unfortunately, American (commercial) fishermen now bear the burden of the legacy of this campaign -- because people in general do not know that American coastal gillnetting has nothing in common with the banned foreign practices of the past.

Today's salmon gillnetting is the most selective form of fishing in Puget Sound and elsewhere! If you wonder how that can be, read on.

Gillnetting in Puget Sound is about harvesting only those stocks of fish whose health and abundance are enhanced by harvest (and there are plenty of them), and not catching fish from those stocks that might need protection. This is selectivity, and there are several factors that contribute to it.

First, careful attention to mesh size determines the age and species of salmon that is caught or not caught. Fish smaller than the selected mesh size, such as juveniles or other species, swim right through the net. Larger fish literally bounce off of it, because their heads are too big to become tangled.

Coupling mesh size with time and area management assures maximum selectivity.

Time management is letting the fleet fish when the target species is present, and when weaker stocks are not.

Area management is putting the fleet where it will not interact with non-targeted species. For example, commercial fishing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca and around the San Juan Islands occurs only while targeted runs of sockeye and pink salmon are present, and the later-returning coho have not yet shown up. And fishing on other targeted species occurs only where those fish are nearing their rivers of origin, where they are no longer swimming in the company of weaker stocks heading for other watersheds. Directed chum salmon fishing in Hood Canal and coho fishing in the fall in Bellinham Bay, when only surplus hatchery fish (and abundant naturally returning Hood Canal Chum stocks) are present, are examples.

In addition, many areas within the Puget Sound area, both large and small, are seasonally or permanently closed to net fishing because of the known risk of interaction with weak or non-targeted stocks.

If you want healthful, delicious, additive-free fish, ask for wild salmon. If it is gillnet-caught Puget Sound or Copper River salmon, you can rest assured that it comes from a sustainable resource, and that it was harvested in the most ecologically sensitive way known. Bon appetit!

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Buck Meloy
Flopping Fresh Fish Company
P.O. Box 572
Bellingham, WA 98227