What’s a Pound Net?
Many folks have driven through coastal towns around waterways, or even had the opportunity to boat through them. While doing so, it is likely they have seen rows of stakes or pole sticking up from the water that one could easily mistake for the remnants of an old dock or pier. What they are actually seeing are the tops of poles holding a very unique fishing gear called a “pound net.”
In the late 1860s, commercial fishermen in North Carolina adopted this fishing gear, which has been said to have possible origins relating to European “weirs” and “fykes,” as well as from fish traps used by Native Americans.
The Ocracoke Working Watermen’s Association has an exhibit that states, “The first recorded evidence of Pound Net Fishing dates to the late 1500s. English explorers tell of natives using rows of sticks to ‘impound’ fish.” According to the North Carolina Maritime Museum, use of this gear began to pick up steam in 1869, when fishermen in the Albemarle Sound began regularly using pound nets to catch river herring. Since then, the use of pound nets has spread up and down the coasts, as well as into the Great Lakes.
The pound net is a passive type of fishing gear that leads fish down a line of net called a lead, into a heart-shaped net that directs them into the final portion called a pound. The shape of each portion of the net relies on the fish’s behavior to direct them into the bowl or pound, where they are unable to escape. Starting at the lead, the fish swim along the net until they enter the first heart. This heart shape then directs the fish into the next heart, and then into the trap. The pound is an enclosure of net, which is sized to allow undersized fish the ability to swim through the mesh and out of the pound. The entrance to this enclosure is a funnel-shaped net that after the fish has passed through, finds difficulty in returning through it to escape. Once in the pound, they are either harvested or returned alive to the surrounding water. While not all nets use two hearts, nor are they shaped as smoothly as illustrated, the overall concept and shape are generally the same.
Over time, fishery regulations and impacts from the weather, such as river flooding, caused a decline in the amount of river herring that fishermen could harvest. Many fishermen then altered their gear and switched to southern flounder and other species such as baitfish. Currently in North Carolina, southern flounder is now one of the primary species fishermen target in pound nets.
In addition to the changes in the species fishermen sought, there were many changes in the number of fishermen using pound nets. Although the decline of the herring fishery saw many fishermen switch to other species, the total number of pound nets is less than half of what is was at its peak. This is unfortunate, because although space is limited and the initial expense of obtaining and setting the gear up is substantial, this is a very selective and sustainable fishing method. The fishermen have the ability to decide what they keep for harvest and what they can release alive.
Pound net fishermen also have a great history of supporting sustainable fisheries research. They frequently work with scientist and managers to develop new and better ways to harvest fish, as well as deter the capture of non-target species. North Carolina commercial fishermen stand out as leaders in their profession this way. They constantly refine their techniques, and encourage responsible use of the resources we all share.
If you happen to be passing through, slow down and see if you can spot a pound net. If you do, you will be looking at a type of fishing gear that has been used in North Carolina for hundreds of years, if not longer.