COLUMN | Innovation around regulation of fishing gear

The Canadian seiner Kristin Joye on set in Johnstone Straits. Fishing sockeye they are required to brail the fish on deck and sort by species. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

As technology improves the efficiency and catching power of commercial fishing vessels, the results can affect fish stocks. To maintain a reasonable distribution of the total allowable catch (TAC) national regulators have tried a number of different approaches.

When licensing designed to limit the fleet size was introduced in Canada, vessels were measured and licensed to that size. With a small allowance, an ageing boat could be replaced.

The result among the salmon seine boats was a fleet of deep and beamy boats. Sixty-foot (18-metre) wooden boats that had packed 45 tonnes of herring became beamy aluminium, steel, and fibreglass boats that could pack 100 tonnes.

Their power went from just over 100 horsepower (75 kW) to 500 and more horsepower (330kW). Powered vanging winches and top lifts added to their efficiency.

If the intent had been to limit fishing power it was a dismal failure. Boats that were capable of making over 20 sets per day replaced boats that had made less than ten sets per day.

A lot of this efficiency was credited to the addition of a net drum that operated with a net that pursed from only one end while the net was being wound onto an aluminium drum made possible with big hydraulics from the powerful new engines.

Meanwhile, Alaska looked at these efficient fish killing machines and decided to outlaw the drum seine. The net would continue to be retrieved by the Puretic power block introduced in the 1950s. All boats would continue to be limited to 58-feet (18 metres) in length.

Soon the power-blocks were controlled by hydraulic rams that allowed them to be moved a distance up and down the boom to speed the net retrieval and piling. A ring bar provided an equivalent to the Canadian hair pin.

Old boats with 16- and 17-foot (4.9- and 5.2-metre) beams were replaced with 58-foot (18-metre) boats with 25-foot (7.6-metre) beams. As in Canada, the engines got larger.

In the 1960s, nylon gear replaced hemp lines and cotton mesh. Spanish corks were replaced with various synthetic “corks” that withstood the strains of both the power blocks and the drums. All this helped the quick recovery of the net.

Early on, fishermen and regulators worried about the implication of these multiple changes for the salmon stocks and for the chance of a fair distribution of catches with other gear types, (i.e. troll and gillnet) and amongst the seiners themselves.

Alaskan seiner seattle
With its net stowed below, an Alaskan seiner travels back south to Seattle. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

Alaska, which already had the 58-foot (18-metre) limit on seine length, also banned the super efficient drums. Innovative fishermen in Southeast Alaska quickly began devising ways to gain a competitive advantage in the low value and huge volume pink salmon fishery.

Small rubber-tired wheels were added to the power-blocks to allow faster recovery of the net. The ram to move the power-block while hauling back was added. Nets were designed to allow pursing from only one end, as on the Canadian drum seines.

Perhaps most significantly, a method of rolling large bags of fish over the boat’s gunwale so that they spilled directly into flush mounted hatches was developed. For large sets, the net could be split to bring multiple quantities of fish on board in succession. Brailing, both the scoop and the sock style became things of the past.

Meanwhile, in Canada, virtually all seiners were, by the 1960s, drum seiners. The old method of pursing from both ends of the net until the lead line came up went by the wayside. In Alaska a heavy steel bar is suspended from a single fall and threaded in the rings when they come up. This holds the lead line up while the rest of the net is hauled through the power block.

In Canada, a similar process has been used however the net and lead line move horizontally to the stern of the boat and around a spooling gear to the drum. A similar bar has been used but it is called a “hair pin” in recognition of its shape. More recently many boasts have added a ring stripper. This is a hinged bar along the bulwarks that, with a short cable for guidance, quickly strips the rings and allows the purse line to pass through as the net is recovered. Similar to the hair pin but faster.

A final important difference between BC’s inside salmon seine fishery is that power-skiffs are capable of towing the seiner sideways when the purse line that is being recovered tends to pull it into the net.

The Sea Gypsy prepares to roll a bag of pink salmon aboard in SE Alaska
The Sea Gypsy prepares to roll a bag of pink salmon aboard in SE Alaska. Photo: Alan Haig-Brown

Alaskan regulations prohibit the end of the seine net from being tied to the beach but the power skiff can tow the end. In Canada seine skiffs, previously limited to oar power, are now permitted outboards but they can tie the end of the net to the beach. In Alaska, power skiffs are permitted.

In addition to towing the end of the seine, these vessels tow-off on the side of the seine to keep the larger boat from being pulled into the net. In Canada, a bow thruster is added to keep the vessel properly oriented to the net.

So I have given you, the reader, a long listing of technological differences between Alaskan and British Columbian salmon seiners. Virtually all of these have evolved to meet or beat government regulations designed to slow the fishery and make it more governable and more equitable for all participants.

In spite of the best-laid plans of regulators, fishermen quickly innovate around any gear restricting regulations. When Canadians introduced hydraulically lifted ramp sterns they caught up in speed with their Alaskan cousins. At the moment these are outlawed, as salmon generally have to be brailed aboard and sorted to return non-targeted species.

Today, the Alaskan purse seiner, in certain conditions on certain species can out-fish the Canadian boats. However both are capable of well over 20 sets per day. The conclusion from these very expensive gear games has to be that regulation of fishing gear is not an effective way to regulate a seine fishery.


Alan Haig-Brown

Alan Roderick Haig-Brown is a Canadian novelist and non-fiction writer. He specialises in commercial marine and commercial fishing writing and photography. He is a regular contributor to a number of marine publications.