Trap Fishing: No Bait, Little Bycatch and No Environmental Damage

Sep 8, 2016

On a steamy August day, at 5:30 in the morning, I joined a crew of fishermen on the Maria Mendosa—one of the few trap fishing boats in the world. It’s called trap fishing because you catch fish in a massive floating net trap. And when I say massive, I mean a floating net the size of a football field.

Motor-less, aluminum boats are towed to the trap net site, where they surround the net and prepare to raise it.
Credit Lydia Keating

There’s no bait. Instead, the fish get caught as the fishermen pull up the net. The traps are placed roughly 1 mile off the coast here in Narragansett Bay, just waiting for fish to come by. Captain Corey Forest said that the traps are like giant floating aquariums.

"It takes 26, 500 to 900 pound anchors to hold that trap in place, and the traps stay there for the whole season," Forest said.

The Maria Mendosa tows four aluminum work boats. When they arrive, the boats surround the trap, and the crew uses winches and their hands -- mostly just their hands -- to raise the net up and out of the water.

As the fishermen start to pull the net, the water starts boiling with fish. It’s a frenzy of white water, thrashing fins and excited fishermen.

While the net’s suspended, the fishermen scoop the fish out and onto the Maria Mendosa using a bowl net. It's like a supersized version of the nets kids use to scoop their goldfish out -- except instead of a single goldfish, it’s hundreds of fish of all sizes. A total of 400 pounds of fish.

Trap fishing is hard to do because it requires more manual labor than other types of fishing. But it has its benefits.

Captain Corey Forest and her trap-fishing catch.
Credit Lydia Keating

The net doesn’t drag across the bottom of the ocean, catching anything and everything along the way. Instead, the fish are handled in a relatively gentle manner.

Anything scooped from the trap into the boat that won’t be sold and eaten, is thrown back thirty seconds later…and gets to swim away unhurt, said Captain Corey Forest.

"We really don't have any bycatch -- you know, stuff that we’re not really targeting like bait and stuff," she said. "Sea robins, we sell to the local lobster company. If there is a regulation, we can literally throw them over board and they swim away. We do try our best to have no dead discard."

And that’s important because trap fishing doesn’t just pull up targeted species like blue fish, striped bass, tatog and scup. The trap fishing aquarium catches a bunch of other creatures—baby great white sharks, adult great white sharks, sea turtles, baby barracudas, you name it.

Forest said the moment when the net comes up, and you can just start to see what’s in there, it's like opening a Christmas present -- a big crazy thrashing Christmas present.

"It’s not for everybody," she said. "People who do this, we’re not normal, whatever that means. I mean, from the first day I did it I was like ‘Oh my God’. "

Despite the environmental benefits, trap fishing is really uncommon. As far as the fishermen here know, it’s unique to the Rhode Island coastline. Why? Corey said for one thing, it’s hard to earn a living as a trap fisherman.

"The thing is, nobody does this for the money because there is not a lot of money. Nobody’s getting rich off this," Forest said.

Researchers said that that's not the only reason why trap fishing is isn't practiced around the world. It also can be hazardous for other boating traffic.

Still, you never know; if fishermen in other parts of the country knew about trap fishing, maybe this crazy, fun, and eco-friendly life on the sea would spread beyond the smallest state in the country.