top of page

A Brief History of Trawling in the Pacific Ocean

If there’s one thing we can say about trawl fishing, it’s that it’s efficient. In fact, it’s so efficient that by the late 19th century, San Francisco Bay had been effectively drained of all its fish, only a decade after trawl fishing was introduced to the area. Over the coming century, this would come to have sweeping consequences up the entire Pacific coast — but surprisingly, this story has a happy ending.
The latter half of the 19th century saw an explosion in food transport. New rail lines began to crisscross the West, and newfangled refrigerated rail cars could keep food fresh while it moved great distances. These new technologies extended to fishing, too; in 1876, the first paranzella net, or two-boat trawl, was introduced in San Francisco Bay just as the abundance of fish in Oregon’s waters was driving a mad dash to harvest as quickly as possible. The Northwest’s first salmon cannery had been established near the mouth of the Columbia only a decade earlier, and fish wheels helped the number of canneries skyrocket, bringing a rapid decline in the salmon population.
Trawling with steam vessels had a similar avidity for removing fish from water. Like fish wheels, trawling with steam vessels was so effective that San Francisco Bay was closed to trawling by 1888 due to dwindling fish stocks. Around this time, the first trawl gear was used off the coasts of Oregon and Washington, and by the time diesel engines hit the scene in the 1920s, bottom-dwelling fish didn’t stand a chance. By the 1960s, even Japanese and Soviet fishing vessels were getting in on the action.
By the 1990s, groundfish landings off the California, Oregon, and Washington Coast had dropped significantly and scientists began to sound the alarm. In 2006, 150,000 square miles of the Pacific were officially closed to all trawl fishing while fishers, scientists, and conservationists worked on refining a long-term fishing plan, restricting some deep waters and designating others as essential fish habitat.
And to the surprise of everyone, it worked. Fish numbers rebounded 50 years faster than anyone predicted. Bycatch fell by an astounding 80%. In 2014, the Marine Stewardship Council certified 13 previously overfished species as sustainable. They added five more species just a few years later. 

bottom of page