Building a Better Fish Trap : Scientists and U.S. Virgin Islands fishers partner to improve fish trap design

By Jennifer Schull and Ron Hill
Fish Traps
St. Thomas fishermen installed escape vents in fish traps (the white rectangles on the traps) after cooperative research demonstrated ecological and economic benefits. Photo credit: D. Bryan, St. Thomas Fishermen's Association

At first glance, an imposing wall of fish traps doesn't look like a coral reef conservation success story, but a closer look at a new trap design suggests a win-win for coral reefs and the fishers who depend on reef resources for food and income.

Fish traps are generally considered a non-selective gear with high bycatch, i.e., capture of non-target fish species or sizes. However, traps are an economically important fishing gear in the U.S. Caribbean.

Because of concerns over bycatch, especially of ecological important herbivorous fish, scientists and fishers from NOAA and the St. Thomas Fishermen's Association put their heads together to see if they could build a better trap.

Testing Designs

The team wanted to explore if traps with escape vents could retain the fisher's target catch and reduce bycatch by allowing the unwanted fish to escape from the trap before it was hauled to the surface. They devised a series of experiments to test different vent sizes and configurations.

Local fishers conducted the field testing of more than 3,000 experimental fish traps. The final design successfully maintained or improved catch rates while reducing capture of non-target and undersized species - especially small surgeonfish and parrotfish. With reduced bycatch, the fishers also spent less time handling unwanted fish before resetting their traps.

Partnering for Real-World Solutions

Many St. Thomas fishers are now using escape vents in their traps, in part due to their direct involvement with this project. The Caribbean Fishery Management Council is funding the voluntary installation of vents for new and existing traps. This cooperative research project demonstrates the effectiveness of scientists and fishers working together to come up with real-world solutions to fisheries challenges. The St. Thomas fishers' experience will be shared with fishing communities in St. Croix and Puerto Rico to expand benefits from the improved traps.

Partners for this effort include: St. Thomas Fishermen's Association, Caribbean Fishery Management Council, NOAA's Southeast Fisheries Science Center, NOAA's Cooperative Research Program, and NOAA's Coral Reef Conservation Program.