With traditional gear at the forefront, expanded fishery a hit

The Nisqually Indian Tribe expanded tribal fishing time on the river this fall by combining traditional fishing gear with recovery bags.

The fishery followed a three-year study that revealed recovery bags helped fishers harvest hatchery chinook selectively with drift gillnets, while release the natural origin fish in need of protecting.

The gillnets are selective by mesh size, allowing nontarget species to pass through. All captured chinook were checked for the fin clips and coded wire tags used to distinguish hatchery fish.  The chinook determined to be of natural origin were held in the water in a recovery bag, vital biological data collected, then the natural origin salmon were released at the end of the fishing day. 

The study found that using this method in the Nisqually River had a mortality rate well under 10%, which is lower than other studies using other selective gear types.

“We were surprised by the results the first year,” said Nisqually finfish harvest program manager Craig Smith.

This year, the tribe opened a selective fishery using this gear in three freshwater sites below Clear Creek. Carefully monitored, fishers drifted for no more than five minutes and held natural origin chinook until the end of the fishing day in recovery bags. The fishery was open for seven days across August and September. 

“The fishers are happy to be there. Until this fishery some fishers have not been on the water as late as September in 10 plus years,” Smith said.

Years of study and care by staff preceded the fishery. Set on exploring effective harvest gear that would be accepted by fishers while aligning with long-term goals to protect the resource, the tribe also tested cedar weirs, which were found useful in a smaller stream, but difficult to implement in a river, and tangle nets, which were unpopular because they scooped up nontarget fish

This year’s fishery observed the same low mortality rate found during the study. Smith said the fishery is a useful tool, and a stirring reminder of the tribes’ thousands of years of fishing experience can be drawn on to support present and future treaty fishing. 

“It’s pretty cool, it’s pretty promising and the Nisqually River is a perfect place for it,” he said. 

Nisqually fishers take advantage of an expanded fishery thanks to traditional fishing methods. Photo: Debbie Preston, Nisqually Tribe. Story: Trevor Pyle