Skip to content

Types of Commercial Fishing Methods

Fishing Rod and Reel

Fishing is as old as hunting and gathering. In fact, whereas livestock breeding has replaced hunting, and gathering has evolved into agriculture, fishing is still, in great part, the last endeavor undertaken to capture wild animals for food. Furthermore, the basic components of fishing, i.e., lines, hooks, nets, and traps, are still in common use. Over time, great improvements in fishing gear, vessels, and fish-finding electronics have been made, but the basic elements remain the same. People still must climb aboard a boat, sail away from home, find, capture, and transport their catch back to port, often with great peril and at risk of their lives.

Fish are the last wild thing we eat, and there’s something special about that.

Introduction to Catch Methods

At Fulton Fish Market, customers often ask, “How are my fish caught?” I think most people would be surprised to know the many ways there are to catch fish.

First, fishing boats are functional, and not all are created equal. Each one is designed and constructed based on their intended use. The depth of the water, the size of the fish they’re after, the length of their trips, the weather, the size of the crew, and what kind of fishing gear will be used all go hand in hand with design and functionality. Different fisheries have their own preferred methods, and these differences in intended purpose and targets bring about a variety of fishing methods all around the world.

We turn it over to our Head of Quality Control, Robert DiGregorio, as he presents you with some of the most common methods of catching fish and shellfish.


Trawler Boat

In the Northeast, a very common fishing method is trawling. A trawl is a cone-shaped net that is pulled through the water at specific depths and speeds, depending on the target species.

Otter Trawler
A common kind of trawler is the otter trawler. These trawlers have two otter boards called “doors” attached to either side of the net. These doors can weigh several hundred pounds and, when towed behind the boat, flare out and keep the net open. The mouth of the net is typically 30 feet to 100+ feet, depending on the size of the vessel and the fishery. Fish taken this way include porgies, whiting, butterfish, and any small schooling fish that swim in the mid-water column. These boats typically fish for one day at a time and can catch hundreds, even thousands of pounds of fish. In Alaska, huge trawlers can catch tons of Alaskan pollock in one tow, and over one million tons are taken this way every year.

Bottom Trawler
Another kind of trawler is the bottom trawl. A bottom trawler is the same idea as the otter trawler but with weights added to keep the net on or near the seabed. These nets are then dragged along, catching “groundfish” such as cod, haddock, and pollock. Flatfish such as flounder, dab, and grey sole are also targeted by bottom trawlers.

Outrigger Trawler
The shrimp fishery has a different take on trawling. They typically use a setup called outrigger trawlers. The net is pulled by booms usually fastened to the mast and extended out over the sides of the vessel when shrimping.

Beam Trawler
Beam trawling is still used to some extent in the US but is more common in Europe. A beam trawler employs a trawl net held open by a horizontal transverse beam. Rigged this way, doors aren’t needed.

Side Trawler
Another kind of old-fashioned way to rig for trawling was the side trawler. The net was dragged alongside the boat with gallows rigged fore and aft. This was very common until the 1960s when they were slowly replaced by stern trawlers, which drag the net behind the boat.

Pair Trawler
A different manner of trawling employed worldwide is pair trawling. This has certain advantages. For instance, two boats can tow a larger net and theoretically catch more fish. The two vessels towing the net don’t need doors to keep the net open because the lateral pull by the boats does that; also, less fuel per vessel is used, and they can usually tow faster if they want to. Pair trawlers targeting cod off the New England coast reported catches up to six times what the average single trawler records.

Is Trawling Sustainable?

Yes, trawling can be very sustainable if done with proper management and careful placement. Fishing with trawlers has raised concerns about its impact on marine ecosystems and sustainability. While this method can yield high catch volumes, it has been associated with notable environmental drawbacks. Unregulated or poorly managed trawling operations can lead to overfishing, habitat destruction, and a high bycatch rate, including non-targeted species and juvenile fish. However, advancements in technology and the implementation of sustainable practices have begun to mitigate some of these issues. Selective gear modifications, like the adoption of Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) and Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs), have significantly reduced the incidental capture of non-target species. Additionally, area closures and seasonal restrictions in sensitive habitats can help protect critical breeding and feeding grounds. When coupled with robust fisheries management plans and stringent enforcement, trawling is being conducted in a more sustainable and environmentally responsible manner, ultimately ensuring the long-term health of marine ecosystems.

Let’s get off the trawlers now and get on a gill netter.


Fishing Gillnet

A gillnet (or gill net, I’ve seen it both ways) is a vertical wall of mesh netting. With floats on top of the nets and weights on the bottom, this construction keeps the nets vertical in the water. Because the twine or filament used to make the net is almost invisible in the water, the fish swim right into it. Their heads get stuck in the mesh, and they can’t escape. The mesh size is regulated by the species targeted, therefore reducing bycatch. This is a very old way of fishing; records exist from all over the world of ancient gill netting. Japan, Norway, Native Americans, Welsh, English, and even the American colonies all used gillnets. As with trawlers, there are also different kinds of gillnets.

Set Gillnet
A set gillnet employs floats and weights like we described but is fastened to poles, making it stationary. The net is set out between the poles, forming a wall in the water for the fish to become trapped in. This kind of fishing, and gill netting in general, is very regulated. How and where they can deploy their nets, how close to shore, how deep in the water the net is set at, the mesh size, etc., are some of the many ways this fishery is managed.

Drift Gillnet
A different kind of gillnet is the drifting gillnet. Drift gillnets are not fastened to stakes or poles but are allowed to drift with the current. The ratio of floats on top and weights on the bottom control the depth the net stays at and keeps it vertical in the water.

I remember years ago in the spring when shad season would come to the Hudson River, only stake nets (stationary gillnets) were permitted up by the George Washington Bridge, but further up in the Poughkeepsie area, only drift nets were allowed. Think of the skill these fishermen had to have to keep their nets at the right depth and in the right current of the river so they didn’t drift into the shipping lanes. Knowing where they would be, day and night, finding them, pulling them, retrieving the fish, and redeploying them, often at night, often in bad weather. This is very hard work and requires a lot of skill. Knowledge of the river, the tides, the moon, the movement of the fish, the coming weather, so many things to consider. In between sets, they were packing fish, transporting fish, repairing nets, and trying to sleep. During shad season, these men lived in shacks by their wharves because they were basically working night and day. I spent some time in these camps, and I can tell you fishing is a tough life, definitely not for everybody. And nothing is guaranteed! You never know if the nets are coming in empty or full.

Drift nets are not only used on rivers. Huge ocean drift nets were used until 2002, when the United Nations General Assembly established a moratorium prohibiting their use in international waters. Miles long and up to 35 meters high, these nets were indiscriminate, and many marine mammals were inadvertently being trapped as bycatch. Many countries have also passed legislation banning their use. Gillnets, when used responsibly, produce very little bycatch and have minimal effect on marine environments.

Is Gillnetting Sustainable?

When managed responsibly, gillnet fishing can be conducted sustainably. Innovations such as the use of acoustic devices and visual cues have been employed to reduce non-target species capture. Additionally, the adoption of size-selective mesh and escape panels can help release undersized or non-commercial species. Implementing proper retrieval protocols and seasonal closures in critical spawning areas further contribute to sustainable gillnet operations. Regular monitoring and enforcement of fishing regulations are crucial in maintaining the integrity of this method. While challenges persist, responsible management practices and technological advancements hold promise for achieving greater sustainability in gillnet fishing, ensuring a balanced approach to seafood harvesting and marine ecosystem conservation. 

Seine Nets

Trawlers and gillnets aren’t the only catch methods that use nets. There are also seiners. A seine is a net used to surround a school of fish. It hangs vertically like a gillnet, but the ends are drawn together to surround the school. Small seine nets can be used by boats right off the beach, while large seiners can catch tons of fish at one time.

Purse Seine
A type of large seiner is a purse seiner. These are large vessels, and the net, the purse seine, is deployed by one or more smaller crafts to surround a large school of fish. The bottom of the net has rings with a line running through them. At the right time, the “purse string” is pulled, drawing the bottom of the net closed like a purse. Herring, sardines, anchovies, and even certain kinds of tuna are caught this way.

Are Seine Nets Sustainable?

When properly managed, seine net fishing can be a very ecologically responsible way to harvest fish. This technique allows for targeted and efficient capture of fish, focusing on a single school of fish at a time, minimizing bycatch compared to some other fishing methods. Additionally, seine nets can be modified with escape panels and mesh sizes to reduce the capture of non-target species.

Hoop Nets

Fishing Hoop Net

Hoop nets, also known as barrel nets or fykes, are commonly used to catch catfish. This is a long tube of netting held open by large metal or fiberglass hoops. Fishermen commonly use 5 to 7 hoops per net. The fish is lured with bait placed in the tail of the net. The fish enter the large opening funnel with no difficulty but find its way blocked by another funnel. It attempts to push out but can’t. Instead, it pushes through into the second funnel and traps itself. There are varying state regulations regarding these nets and depending on what state you’re in, you are expected to abide by rules regarding where these can be used, their size, the gauge of the twine or cord, mesh size, etc.

Are Hoop Nets Sustainable?

When managed thoughtfully, hoop net fishing can be an environmentally responsible means of harvesting seafood. The use of specific gear designs, such as escape rings or vents, allows for the release of undersized or non-targeted species, reducing bycatch. Furthermore, the stationary nature of hoop nets minimizes habitat disturbance and damage compared to more active fishing methods. Properly enforced size and possession limits, along with seasonal closures, further contribute to sustainable practices. Nonetheless, it is crucial to monitor and regulate hoop net operations to ensure compliance with conservation measures. Overall, with diligent management and adherence to sustainable practices, hoop net fishing can play a constructive role in meeting seafood demand while safeguarding the long-term health of marine ecosystems.

Pound Nets

Pound nets produce some of the best fish you can buy. They are not really nets, per se, but more like a corral. There is a fence leader that is placed where a school of fish is known to pass. These leaders and nets are anchored to the bottom and are set in near-shore areas. The fish are led into a mesh funnel that ends in an enclosed pound or trap. The fish are concentrated in this pound and are then removed with dip nets and packed up. These fish used to be packed in barrels with ice brine when I started, but these days more are packed in boxes. Because the fish are packed and shipped out so fast, they arrive still in rigor and super fresh. Depending on where you are, different fish are caught like this, such as butterfish, porgies, croakers, and weakfish.

Are Pound Nets Sustainable?

Pound nets are a low-carbon fishing method that can efficiently harvest targeted species while reducing the bycatch rate and avoiding endangered or threatened species. This technique has been recognized for its sustainability benefits. When managed conscientiously, pound net fishing can be an environmentally responsible approach to seafood harvesting. The stationary nature of pound nets minimizes habitat disruption and reduces the likelihood of damaging sensitive underwater environments. Additionally, the design of pound nets allows for selective harvesting, as non-target species can often escape through escape openings or mesh sizes that are tailored to specific target species. Adherence to strict size and possession limits, along with seasonal closures, further contributes to sustainable practices. However, as with any fishing method, effective management and enforcement are essential to maintaining sustainability standards. Overall, with careful oversight and adherence to sustainable practices, pound net fishing can be an important component of a balanced and environmentally conscious approach to fisheries management.

Bully Nets

The bully net is a handheld scoop net attached to a pole with a line attached to the back of the net. Usually, during the daylight hours, spiny lobsters hide in crevices in 10 to 15 feet of water. The only way to get them was with lobster pots or scuba diving. But at night, the lobsters come in close, in 1 to 4 feet of water, and they’re much more active. They walk around looking for food, feeling safe in the dark water. That’s where the bully net comes in. With the water illuminated by the lights from the boat, the lobster is spotted on the bottom. You position the net just above the lobster and then quickly plunge it straight down, trapping it. At the same time, the line is dropped, and the net is released, surrounding the lobster. Then you drag the net backward toward the handle, causing the lobster to swim into the back of the net, and it’s caught. The whole procedure takes seconds once the lobster is spotted.

Are Bully Nets Sustainable?

When conducted with sustainability in mind, bully net fishing can be an environmentally responsible means of harvesting seafood. The selectivity of this method, coupled with the ability to target specific species, contributes to reduced bycatch compared to other fishing techniques. Additionally, the use of artificial light sources for attraction minimizes habitat disturbance and damage. Strict adherence to size and possession limits, along with seasonal closures and spatial restrictions, further enhance the sustainability of this approach. However, effective monitoring and enforcement are crucial to ensure compliance with conservation measures. In sum, with proper management and adherence to sustainable practices, bully net fishing can be a valuable component of responsible fisheries management, providing a sustainable source of seafood while safeguarding marine ecosystems.

Cast Nets

Cast Net Fishing

A cast net is a hand-thrown mesh net, usually circular in shape but can be square, that is thrown over schools of smaller fish. Large cast nets can be 12 feet across and can catch 50 lbs of fish at a time. The net is thrown, and the weights attached make it sink over the fish. A clamp seals the net around the fish when the net is drawn in. The size of the net, the mesh size, and the weights attached all depend on where you’re fishing and what type of fish you’re looking for. A lot of people use this method to just catch bait, but food fish, such as mullet, sardines, or any kind of small schooling fish, can be caught this way as well. Once the method of casting the net is mastered, this is a very efficient way of fishing. In fact, so efficient that local regulations in different jurisdictions restrict what fish can and can’t be taken this way.

Is Cast Net Fishing Sustainable?

When practiced judiciously, cast net fishing can be an ecologically sound approach to harvesting seafood. This technique is highly selective, allowing for targeted capture of specific fish species, which reduces the likelihood of unintentional bycatch. Moreover, cast net fishing typically takes place in shallow waters, minimizing the potential for habitat disturbance or damage to sensitive marine environments. Adherence to local regulations regarding mesh size, possession limits, and seasonal closures further supports sustainable practices. However, effective management and enforcement are crucial to ensuring that cast net fishing remains a sustainable option. Overall, with careful attention to conservation measures and responsible fishing practices, cast net fishing can be a valuable tool in balancing seafood production with the preservation of marine ecosystems.

Dip Nets

Dip Net Fishing

These are hand-held scoop-type nets on long, usually telescoping aluminum poles, sometimes long wooden poles. These poles can range from 2 to 7 feet long with deep nets and wide hoops. Dip nets can be used for a variety of smaller fish, but they are commonly used on the rivers when smelts start running. Different states and localities have their own limits, quotas, and seasons, but as far as using a dip net, it’s the same everywhere. Standing on the riverbank, you look for a few things. First, which way is the river running, and then look to see if any fish are breaking water, making ripples, and splashing around. You stick the dip net in the water in front of the fish and move the net towards them as they are swimming towards the net. You can’t go behind them because as soon as they feel the net, they will be gone. This technique sounds easy, and while it might not involve sophisticated equipment, it takes a while to know how to find the fish and how to use the net properly.

Is Dip Net Fishing Sustainable?

Dip net fishing is renowned for its minimal environmental impact and sustainability. Due to its manual nature and limited range, dip net fishing is highly selective, allowing fishermen to specifically target certain species and avoid unintentional bycatch. The low-tech approach also reduces the risk of habitat disturbance or damage to aquatic environments. Additionally, dip net fishing is often employed in small-scale, artisanal operations, which tend to have lower ecological footprints compared to larger-scale industrial fishing methods. However, it's important to note that adherence to local regulations, such as size limits and seasonal restrictions, is crucial for maintaining sustainable practices. When conducted with care and consideration, dip net fishing can be a responsible means of seafood harvesting, contributing to the conservation of marine ecosystems.

Hand Lines

Handlining is a very simple way of fishing that is still used today. This is a real old-school method of catch. No nets here, just a baited hook and a line, sometimes with branch lines, not attached to a rod or pole of any kind but rather held in the hands. When the fish strikes, the line is pulled in, hand over hand, until the fish is landed. A mechanized reel is used on some boats if available. Don’t think only small fish can be caught this way. Huge swordfish and tuna are fished this way in certain parts of the world. In General Santos City, in the Philippines, I stood and watched the tuna fleet return with literally hundreds of large 100+ lb yellowfin tuna, all caught by handliners. I was pretty amazed.

Is Handlining Sustainable?

Handlining is praised for its minimal environmental impact and sustainability. Hand line fishing is highly selective, allowing fishermen to target specific species and significantly reducing the risk of unintentional bycatch compared to other fishing techniques. However, compliance with local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is essential to ensure sustainable practices. When conducted with care and adherence to conservation measures, hand line fishing is a responsible and environmentally friendly means of seafood harvesting, promoting the long-term health of marine ecosystems.

Pole & Line

Still used in many parts of the world, including the US, pole and line fishing is also a simple technique in that it doesn’t require sophisticated or elaborate equipment. A rigid pole, these days usually made of fiberglass and around 6-9 feet, some strong line, and a feathered lure with a barbless hook is all it takes. Targeting skipjack and other small tuna, such as albacore or juvenile yellowfin, the fish are first lured to the boat by using bait and/or by spraying the water with a hose. The spraying of hose water gives the illusion the water is alive with small, jumping fish driving the tuna into a feeding frenzy. The fish begin to gather, and the fishermen position themselves all along the rail, depending on where the fish are, and throw their lines in. When the fish strike, they are heaved aboard, not reeled in, but heaved on deck, where the fish release themselves from the barbless hook. Several tons of tuna can be taken this way in just a few hours. Interestingly though, during this hectic activity, if a tuna falls back into the water, something happens, and the whole school might run away. The fishing can end as quickly as it began.

Is Pole & Line Fishing Sustainable?

Pole and line fishing is widely regarded as one of the most sustainable methods of commercial fishing. It boasts a number of ecological advantages, including minimal bycatch and reduced habitat disruption. The selectivity of this approach ensures that only the desired species are caught, significantly reducing the incidental capture of non-targeted marine life. Stringent management practices, including strict catch limits and real-time monitoring, are often employed to further enhance the sustainability of pole and line fishing operations. As a result, this method serves as a model for responsible seafood harvesting, aligning with the broader goals of marine conservation and sustainable resource management.


Another very productive kind of fishing involving lines is longline fishing. These kinds of boats use a very long main line with branch lines spaced out. These branch lines have hooks baited with mackerel or squid, with sometimes thousands of them spread out on a line 20 to 30 miles long. Every 12 to 24 hours, the line is mechanically retrieved, fish taken off, re-baited, and reset. Longliners are used around the world, and longliners from this area routinely fish for tuna and swordfish and, when rigged as bottom longliners, catch tilefish. Longline fish are usually very high quality, and their efforts are very efficient, but in the past, there was a bycatch problem. Changes have been made to some of the gear to correct this, namely circle hooks. Circle hooks make it harder for sea turtles to bite and swallow the hook, greatly reducing turtle mortality. The use of weights to sink the lines faster, special gear to scare away birds, and making sets only at night, along with other actions, have greatly decreased incidental catch.

Is Longline Fishing Sustainable?

When managed responsibly, longline fishing can be an environmentally viable means of harvesting seafood. One of its notable advantages lies in its potential to minimize bycatch compared to other fishing techniques. By implementing measures such as circle hooks and bird-scaring devices, longliners can significantly reduce the unintended capture of non-target species, including sea turtles, seabirds, and sharks. Furthermore, advancements in technology, such as satellite tracking and real-time monitoring, enable precise control over fishing efforts, helping to prevent overfishing and minimize impacts on the marine ecosystem. However, challenges persist in achieving widespread sustainability in longline fisheries, particularly in regions with lax regulations and enforcement. With careful management practices and continued technological progress, longline fishing can play a vital role in meeting global seafood demand while safeguarding the long-term health of marine ecosystems.

Hook & Line

While broadly speaking, the hook and line fishing method can define all ways a fish is taken by a hook attached to a line and discussed earlier under such headings as “Longline” and “Handline,” here we’re referring to more specific ways. All kinds of fish may be taken commercially using hook and line, like red snapper, pompano, vermilion snapper, king mackerel, and black sea bass, to name a few. Some boats use rods and reels. They might have 5 or 6 lines in the water at once rigged with 2 hooks on separate branch lines. When the fish hit, it can be pretty hectic, reeling them in, taking them off the hook, and re-baiting. Meanwhile, another two lines have fish on them. This is very fast-paced fishing.

Other boats may have what looks like a long fiberglass arm, and from that arm, a line is set out with 20 or more baited hooks. After a set time, a big electric or hydraulic reel brings the line in with, hopefully, fish on every hook. In the Gulf of Mexico, fishermen use the oil rigs as FADs (fish aggregating devices) and fish their lines right next to them, practically in their shadow.

Is Hook & Line Fishing Sustainable?

Hook and line fishing is considered one of the most sustainable methods of catching fish. This method is highly selective, allowing fishermen to target specific species and significantly reducing the risk of bycatch. Unlike some other fishing methods, it does not involve nets or trawls that can inadvertently capture non-target species. Additionally, hook and line fishing does not cause significant habitat disturbance. When practiced responsibly, with adherence to size limits, bag limits, and catch-and-release policies, hook and line fishing can be an environmentally friendly means of harvesting seafood. It also supports recreational fishing communities and can contribute to sustainable fisheries management practices. Overall, hook and line fishing represents a balanced approach to seafood harvesting that minimizes environmental impact while allowing for the enjoyment of recreational fishing activities.


Another catch method is trolling. Fishing lines, either baited or with lures, are drawn through the water behind the boat. One advantage of this kind of fishing is it can be used to catch faster swimmers like albacore and salmon. The boat moves at a faster speed, and the lines are set at a depth appropriate for the species. Downriggers, long poles with several lines attached, are used to keep the lines spread out. There are different ways to catch salmon, but during wild king salmon season, “troll kings” are considered the best.

Is Trolling Sustainable?

Troll fishing can be conducted sustainably with the right management strategies in place. Troll fishing can have lower environmental impacts compared to other methods. The use of selective gear, such as circle hooks, helps reduce bycatch and minimize the capture of non-targeted species. Additionally, troll fishing targets adult fish, leaving juvenile populations to support future reproduction. The mobile nature of troll fishing allows for flexibility in avoiding overfished areas and reducing pressure on vulnerable stocks. However, effective fisheries management, including accurate stock assessments and enforceable quotas, is essential to ensuring the sustainability of troll fishing operations. By employing these measures, troll fishing can be an environmentally responsible means of seafood harvesting.


A trotline is a heavy fishing line with shorter lines branching off of it. These shorter lines, called snoods, are attached to the main line by small swivels. Typically set in rivers and streams, the line with all its baited hooks can be set along the shoreline or can be strung across the width of the river if legally permitted. Weights are used to hold the line at the desired depth in the water. When setting the trotline, it’s important to consider undergrowth, currents, and river traffic. Trout are sometimes caught this way, which leads people to mispronounce the term and call it a “troutline.” But trout aren’t the only fish taken by this method. Hackleback sturgeon, the last wild sturgeon still fished commercially in the US, is still taken this way.

Is Trotline Fishing Sustainable?

Trotline fishing is a method whose sustainability hinges on responsible practices and adherence to regulations. When managed thoughtfully, trotline fishing can be an ecologically sound approach to seafood harvesting. The controlled deployment of baited hooks can reduce the risk of bycatch compared to other methods, as fishermen have greater control over the types and sizes of fish caught. Additionally, trotlines are typically used in freshwater environments, which tend to be more resilient to fishing pressure compared to marine ecosystems. However, to ensure sustainability, it is imperative to follow local regulations regarding hook size, possession limits, and seasonal closures. By employing these measures, trotline fishing can be a sustainable and viable means of seafood procurement, contributing to the preservation of aquatic ecosystems and the long-term health of fish populations.

Shellfish Catch Methods

Just as there are many ways to catch fish, there are also many different ways to harvest shellfish. Location, the specific species, the depth of the water, and local fishing regulations all lend to determining which method is used. There are many nuances to all of them as well, and every commercial digger or bayman has their own time-tested secrets. Here are some descriptions to help you understand these methods a little better.


Lobster Traps

Traps, or pots (the terms are interchangeable), are usually made of wood, wire netting, or plastic. They can be square, circular, or rectangular, and the size varies from a large suitcase to huge king crab traps big enough to stand in. The size and shape may vary depending on the targeted species, but they all work pretty much the same way. There is a cone-shaped entrance that the crab or lobster can easily navigate, but it’s nearly impossible to get out. To help ensure that undersized animals are not also captured, there is a small opening in the mesh called a cull ring to let the small guys out. These traps are usually laid out in strings, with several traps attached to buoys. When the boat comes back to haul them in, it captures the buoy line, attaches it to the winch, and brings them up. They are then emptied, re-baited, and set again. This is the preferred way to fish for crabs and lobsters, but some species of fish are targeted this way as well, such as black sea bass, blackfish, and eels.

Recently, there has been an interesting development in the UK. They have been experimenting using traps with disco-like LED lights to catch scallops. They were originally targeting crabs but found that scallops were irresistibly drawn to the lights. Marine scientists say it’s like a scallop disco! Light up the traps, and they can’t wait to get in! In studies, 901 traps without lights caught 2 scallops, but 985 traps with lights caught 518 scallops. This has the potential to start a whole new fishery and also has great environmental implications. Whereas traditional scallop dredges can disturb the bottom quite a bit, this has absolutely no adverse effect on the marine environment.

Is Trap Fishing Sustainable?

Trap fishing is a sustainable and targeted method used to catch specific species of crustaceans. Trap fishing is recognized for its low environmental impact and minimal bycatch. The selectivity of traps helps avoid the unintentional capture of non-targeted marine life, reducing the ecological footprint of this fishing method. Additionally, trap fishing generally takes place in specific areas and does not involve large-scale habitat disturbance. Properly designed and placed traps can also minimize damage to the ocean floor. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits, escape panels, and seasonal closures, is crucial to maintaining sustainable trap fishing operations. When conducted responsibly, trap fishing can provide a reliable and environmentally friendly means of harvesting seafood while supporting the long-term health of marine ecosystems.

Wrinkle Drag

A wrinkle drag is a very small, lightweight net, 6 feet or less, used behind a boat in shallow water to catch periwinkles. This, and gathering by hand, are probably the most common ways to do so. Periwinkle gathering, or “wrinkling,” is pretty unregulated; the only requirement in most places is a valid commercial fishing license.

Is Wrinkle-Dragging Sustainable?

Wrinkle-dragging is considered a sustainable approach to seafood procurement. When managed thoughtfully, wrinkle-dragging can be an environmentally responsible means of harvesting periwinkles. The selective nature of this method, coupled with the ability to target specific habitats, contributes to reduced bycatch. Additionally, the low-impact nature of wrinkle-dragging minimizes disturbance to sensitive intertidal ecosystems. Strict adherence to local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is essential for maintaining sustainable periwinkle harvesting operations. Overall, with careful management and adherence to conservation measures, wrinkle-dragging serves as a responsible and ecologically friendly means of obtaining periwinkles, supporting both the seafood industry and the long-term health of intertidal environments.

Suripera Fishing

Suripera fishing is a very unique method of shrimping that has existed in certain parts of Mexico for decades. It involves a small boat called a panga, with a billowing sail rigged to a central mast. Behind the boat, the fishermen release several nets with small openings specifically constructed to catch shrimp. These nets are designed to catch only one kind of animal and to prevent the capture of non-targeted species. This is “selective fishing gear” at its best. Each net has three compartments, and as the nets are towed, the shrimp enter the large, broad chamber and are funneled into the smaller compartments at the back of the net. These smaller compartments are enclosed and capture the shrimp. A good tow can produce 500-800 pounds of shrimp. 

Is Suripera Fishing Sustainable?

When managed with care, suripera fishing can be an environmentally responsible approach to shrimp harvesting. This targeted approach significantly decreases the unintentional capture of non-targeted species, contributing to lower ecological impacts. Moreover, suripera fishing is typically conducted on a small scale, supporting local artisanal fishing communities and reducing the overall environmental footprint associated with larger-scale industrial operations. This catch method, paired with the sail-powered boats, also results in the lowest carbon footprint shrimp fishery in the world. However, to ensure sustainability, it is crucial to adhere to local regulations and best practices, including size limits, mesh size requirements, and seasonal closures. When carried out thoughtfully and in compliance with conservation measures, suripera fishing is an environmentally-friendly means of seafood harvesting.


Scuba divers enter the water with either a spear gun and/or a basket. This is the way to harvest sea urchins. This is an environmentally safe method with no damage to kelp forests or the ocean floor. While keeping an eye out for predators, divers swim up to the urchins and pick them like flowers, being sure not to take ones that are too small and leaving enough to spawn for next season.

Rock lobsters are also taken this way by some lobstermen instead of using traps, again being sure not to take any that are undersized or with roe.

Have you ever seen “Diver Scallops” on a menu? These are inshore scallops actually harvested by hand. Depending on where they’re diving, the scallops are usually in the 20-30 range, although I’ve seen larger ones from Maine.

Is Diving for Seafood Sustainable?

Diving for shellfish is a sustainable and selective method for harvesting these marine creatures. When managed responsibly, diving for seafood has a relatively low environmental impact. Divers can carefully select and harvest the shellfish while leaving behind the juvenile ones, allowing the population to regenerate. Moreover, this method does not involve the use of heavy equipment or the disruption of sensitive habitats, contributing to its eco-friendliness. Regulations, such as size limits and seasonal closures, are often in place to ensure sustainable diving. By adhering to these conservation measures and responsible harvesting practices, shellfish diving supports the long-term health of marine ecosystems while providing a valuable source of seafood.


Tongs are used for digging clams. They are long poles with sharp, toothed baskets attached to each pole. The poles are typically 10 to 12 feet long and operate similar to scissors. When you open your hands, the baskets open; when you close your hands, the baskets close. With the baskets open, you work them into the bottom and wriggle them around some. Then you close the baskets, shimmy them up on deck, and dump your clams. I can tell you from personal experience this is tough work. You stand there, for hours on end, doing this over and over until you’ve had enough for the day. In nice weather, you think, “This is a great way to make money!” But in the freezing cold, sweltering heat, rain, or wind, other thoughts about digging clams come to mind.

Is Digging for Clams with Tongs Sustainable?

Using tongs to harvest clams is recognized as a sustainable and low-impact method for collecting these mollusks from coastal environments. When managed responsibly, clam tongs offer several ecological benefits. They enable selective harvesting, ensuring that only mature clams are collected while minimizing the capture of juvenile or non-target species. The manual operation of tongs reduces the environmental footprint associated with heavy machinery and prevents habitat disturbance. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is essential for maintaining the sustainability of clam harvesting operations. Using tongs to harvest clams promotes responsible seafood procurement and supports the long-term health of coastal ecosystems, making it a sustainable and environmentally conscious approach.


Clam Rakes

Raking, or “bull raking,” is another way of digging. Rakes can be 50 to 60 feet long with large baskets attached. Some diggers prefer certain kinds of baskets and certain length teeth, depending on if it’s a hard or soft bottom. You put the basket on the bottom, teeth side down, and in a back-and-forth motion, you dig around. When you’re ready, you pull the rake back in either manually or with the aid of a hydraulic winch and dump your clams.

Is Raking Sustainable?

Clam raking can be a sustainable approach to seafood harvesting. This method is notably low-impact, as it avoids the use of heavy machinery or disruptive techniques. Clam rakes are designed to target specific clam species, allowing for selective harvesting and reducing the risk of unintentional bycatch. Additionally, they are typically operated manually, minimizing habitat disturbance and preventing damage to sensitive coastal environments. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits, possession limits, and seasonal closures, is imperative for maintaining sustainable clam raking operations. Clam raking offers a viable and environmentally friendly means of obtaining clams, supporting both the seafood industry and the health of coastal ecosystems.

Hand Dug/Hand Harvested

Soft shell clams, such as steamer clams, are hand-harvested with short, handheld rakes or forks. They kind of look like a gardening tool, and at low tide, you go out on the flats, stoop over, and start carefully digging. You look for a little hole in the sand and dig 3 to 8 inches, being careful because their shells are so fragile. If the sand or mud is soft enough, you can dig by hand. This is backbreaking work as you are stooped over the entire time you are working.

Is Hand Digging/Hand Harvesting Sustainable?

Hand digging for clams stands out as a notably sustainable method for harvesting these bivalves from coastal areas. Hand harvesting also has a low environmental impact. It enables selective harvesting, ensuring that only mature clams are collected while preserving smaller or juvenile individuals to aid in population recovery. Moreover, hand digging avoids the use of heavy machinery, which can lead to habitat disturbance and damage. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is essential for maintaining sustainable clam harvesting operations. Hand digging for clams serves as an eco-friendly means of obtaining this seafood resource, supporting both the seafood industry and the long-term health of coastal ecosystems.


Razor clams are hand-dug like other soft shell clams, but these require a little ingenuity. First, because they have extremely fragile shells, and second, because they can dig so fast you might not be able to catch them! Studies have shown razor clams can dig 24 inches in a minute. You can use a shovel to dig for them, but an easier, more efficient way is to use salt. A lot of diggers use a salt gun that injects a salty solution into the holes to help harvest razor clams. Typically, within a minute or two of injecting the salty solution, the razor clam will lift itself almost out of the hole, and all that’s left to do is pluck them out of the sand.

Is Using Salt to Dig for Soft Shell Clams Sustainable?

Utilizing salt to dig soft shell clams is recognized as a sustainable method of harvesting these delicate bivalves along coastal areas. When practiced thoughtfully, this method has minimal environmental impact. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is crucial for maintaining sustainable soft shell clam harvesting operations. The use of salt in clam digging is an environmentally friendly means of obtaining this delicious shellfish, supporting the long-term health of coastal environments.

Post Hole Digger

On the West Coast, a common method is to use something that looks like a post hole digger. You find where you want to dig (look for the dimples in the sand) and wriggle the post in, twisting a little as you do it. When it’s extracted, a tube of sand comes with it, and inside that core of sand are the clams.

Is Using a Post Hole Digger Sustainable?

Using a post hole digger to harvest clams is sustainable when managed with care. When done responsibly, it can minimize the environmental impact of clam harvesting. The selective nature of this approach allows for the targeted collection of mature clams while leaving the undersized or non-target species. Adherence to local regulations, including size limits and seasonal closures, is essential for maintaining the sustainability of clam harvesting.


Scallop Dredge

A dredge is a metal framed-out rectangle, about 14 feet across, depending on local regulations. Attached to this frame is a large, metal mesh "bag" that looks similar to a chain link fence with 4-inch links to keep out the undersized fish and shellfish. There is an open mouth in the front of the frame and a mesh bag. The boats can be rigged to drag from the sides or from the stern. The dredge is dragged along the bottom, and everything that gets stirred up ends up in the bag. It is hauled back on board, emptied, and deployed again. Scallops are typically fished this way.

Hydraulic Dredge
Huge hydraulic dredges are used to target shellfish, like sea clams, which are found at depths up to 120 feet. Modern technology has made working on these boats a lot easier than it used to be. The dredge is set on the bottom alongside the boat, and usually, the tow is about 10 minutes long. These dredges have water lines to jet water along the bottom to make it faster and easier to tow.

Is Dredging Sustainable?

The sustainability of dredging operations largely relies on careful planning and management. Selective dredging techniques, which incorporate size-sorting mechanisms or specialized equipment, can significantly reduce bycatch and minimize the impact on non-targeted species and habitats. Additionally, adherence to best practices, such as sediment disposal regulations and habitat restoration efforts, can further enhance the sustainability of dredging activities. However, it's essential to acknowledge that dredging can potentially lead to habitat disturbance, sedimentation, and turbidity in aquatic environments. Thus, employing comprehensive environmental impact assessments and adopting adaptive management strategies are critical in ensuring the long-term sustainability of dredging projects. Responsible dredging practices, guided by robust environmental regulations and ongoing monitoring, contribute to balanced resource utilization while safeguarding the health and integrity of marine ecosystems. 

Mussel Cultivation

Once upon a time, most Americans didn’t know or care about mussels and wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole. Back then, mussels were found all clumped together on rocks or pilings and were sold barely cleaned, most with barnacles and beards and replete with little crabs. People just didn’t want to bother with them. In the 1970s, mussels began to be cultivated, which made a huge difference. They now come to market clean, meaning no barnacles, no beards, and no crabs. Mussels' popularity has soared as a result of this. The big reason for their rise in popularity is the way they’re grown out. During the spawning season, wild mussel seed is collected by suspending fibrous lines in the water, and hatchery seed is collected from mussels spawning in the hatchery tanks. These seeds are then put into long “socks” and hung from rafts. Grown out like this, they are safe from predators, barnacles, and all the other problems that wild mussels have. After 12 to 15 months, they are harvested and brought to the processing plant, where they get washed, graded, and bagged.

Another way to cultivate mussels is on the bottom of the ocean, like wild mussels. They can get clumpy, with beards and everything, but this way has advantages. The mussels grow heartier and larger, with thicker shells and plumper meats.

Is Mussel Cultivation Sustainable?

Mussel cultivation is widely recognized as a sustainable method of seafood production. Mussel farming requires minimal input from external resources such as feed or antibiotics, reducing the potential for environmental pollution or habitat degradation. This method of cultivation often complements other marine activities and helps to alleviate pressure on wild mussel stocks. By adhering to responsible farming practices and considering the local ecological context, mussel cultivation plays a vital role in meeting global seafood demand while supporting the health and resilience of coastal ecosystems.

Oyster Cultivation

Oyster Cultivation

Purely wild oysters have become a rarity these days and for several reasons. Like mussels, wild oysters came with plenty of barnacles and crabs in addition to being misshapen, different sizes, and dirty. These days, most commercial production involves oyster cultivation. The grow-out method chosen depends on climate, geography, predators, and regulations. Many growers use a combination of these systems to get the results desired.

Keep in mind that oyster cultivation is different from fish farming in several important ways. Oysters don’t have to be fed, as they filter their food the same way wild oysters do. They eat only what they would in the wild. They are not vaccinated or given antibiotics, or medically looked after in any way. They are actually more alike than different from purely wild oysters.

Bottom Culture
One popular way of cultivating oysters is bottom or beach culturing. The spat is spread on the bottom, and while they don’t adhere to rocks or each other like wild oysters do, they grow and develop the same as wild oysters. Bottom culturing produces very hearty oysters with thick shells and lots of meat. However, they are vulnerable to predators.

Cage Culture
Cage culture is one way cultivators employ off-bottom methods to avoid danger from predators. These are large cages that house grow-out mesh bags full of baby oysters and keep them safe. Some farms use this method exclusively, while others may take the oysters out of the bags and bottom culture them to finish their growing.

Rack-and-Bag Culture
Another oyster cultivation method is rack-and-bag culture. The oysters are placed in grow-out bags and tied to steel racks. The oysters are safe from predators and have plenty of room to grow. They don’t have to filter as much sand and silt as bottom-cultured oysters do and, therefore, grow faster with a deep cup.

Tray Culture
Tray culture is a lot like using grow-out bags, but instead, the oysters are placed in large trays. The trays function and serve the same purpose as the bags. An advantage to using trays is that they can be stacked to save space.

Suspended Culture
Another off-bottom culture method is suspended culture. Here, the oysters are in grow-out bags and tied to lines with buoys that float on the surface. The bags are suspended vertically and rise and fall with the tides. Some suspended culture methods use cages or trays attached to a long line that is hauled in to tend to the oysters. Either way, the oysters are constantly flipped around, moved up and down, get plenty of nutrients, and tumble naturally.

Surface Culture/Floating Culture
Different gear can be used, but whether it’s bags or floats, essentially all surface gear is allowed to just float on the surface of the water. These oysters are never dry, get great wave action, and get tumbled naturally.

Longline Suspension Systems
Longline suspension systems are a variation of off-bottom oyster culturing. In this procedure, long ropes with seedling oysters are attached and suspended in the water. They are usually suspended horizontally and staked one to two feet off the bottom. Sometimes, in deeper water, they may be suspended vertically. Either way, growing out this way, they have more interaction with the environment and develop sturdier shells and firmer meats. These oysters get a lot of wave action and rise and fall with the tides. It takes a stronger oyster to remain attached to the line during all this agitation than it does to lie in a tray, as in suspended tray methods.

Is Oyster Cultivation Sustainable?

Oyster cultivation is widely acknowledged as a sustainable method of procuring these prized bivalves. Oysters are filter feeders, meaning they extract nutrients from the water, which helps improve water quality by reducing excess nutrients and sediment. This natural behavior benefits the overall health of the surrounding ecosystem. Oyster farms also have a relatively low environmental impact compared to other forms of aquaculture, as they typically do not require supplemental feeding or the use of antibiotics. In addition, oyster farming structures are designed to minimize disturbance to the seafloor. Oyster farms can also serve as artificial reefs, providing habitat and shelter for various marine species. When managed responsibly, oyster cultivation supports sustainable seafood production while contributing to the health and resilience of coastal ecosystems. Adherence to best practices, local regulations, and ongoing research and innovation are key to maintaining the sustainability of oyster cultivation.

Catch Methods Conclusion

There are many variations of the catch methods listed above depending on what part of the world you’re fishing and what you’re fishing for. Whether it’s a small-scale artisanal fishery or a large industrial factory ship, every fisherman has their own fishing secrets, their own methods, and their own techniques. Their own finesse for getting it done. They all contribute to our nutrition and to our health, both today and in the future.

Previous article How The Fulton Fish Market Works
Next article Quick Cooking Instructions