Oregon netmaker helps fleet catch the right fish

NOAA Administrator Kathryn D. Sullivan on Thursday visited Foulweather Trawl, a small business in Newport, Ore., that has provided West Coast fishermen with innovative nets that catch more of the fish they want while avoiding sensitive stocks and other non-target species.

The specially engineered nets have proven to be important tools in effectively transitioning the West Coast groundfish fishery to catch shares, a management approach that allocates each participating fisherman a share of the allowable catch, or quota. Catch shares replaced the traditional race to catch as many fish as possible before the close of the season.

Under catch shares, fishermen carefully fish for target species and avoid other species, because the fish are not marketable or they don’t have enough quota. That’s where Foulweather’s nets, with built-in bycatch reduction devices that select for certain fish while excluding others, come into play.

Sara Skamser, owner of Foulweather Trawl in Newport, Ore., displays an excluder built into a trawl net that helps the net selectively catch targeted fish. Photo: Alix Smith, NOAA

“The fishermen have had to change the way they think about fishing, and we have had to change the way we think about building them the tools to do it,” says Sara Skamser, who began Foulweather Trawl in the 1980s with her husband, John, and one employee. Today Skamser has seven employees who build nets for about 75 fishing vessels up and down the West Coast, including Alaska.

“In the big scheme of things we are a small net shop, so we really pay attention to what the fishermen want,” she says. “The bigger shops don’t always custom build their nets.”

Skamser and her staff work with fishermen and researchers from NOAA Fisheries, Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commission and Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife to design nets to catch certain fish based on their behavior and favored depths. Recently Foulweather Trawl developed a net with a bycatch reduction device that selectively catches Dover sole, a more plentiful species with a higher allowable catch.

“This is collaboration in the best sense of the word,” Sullivan said. “Science, business owners and fishing captains are all applying their expertise in the name of resilience and sustainability.”

Fishermen sometimes call Skamser from out on the ocean to say: “I’ve been thinking about this net, and maybe you could build it this way?” Some of Foulweather’s most important innovations emerged from such ideas and suggestions. “The fishermen are working hard for sustainability,” Skamser says. “No one wants a healthy ocean more than fishermen.”

Home page photo: Alix Smith, NOAA