Fish Wheels: They were so effective and therefore banned in the United States because they threatened the salmon population

David Goran
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A fish wheel is a water-powered device used for catching fish, particularly salmon. Their design was simple: it consists of a revolving wheel with baskets and paddles attached to its rim. The wheel rotates due to the current of the stream pressing the bottom basket or paddle that has swung down into the water.

A wooden fish wheel out of the water. This wheel would rotate clockwise as water flowed from right to left. Openings on the near side, close to the axle, are where fish would pour out, propelled by the slanted bottom of the basket when it is nearing the top of the wheel. Wikipedia Public Domain

A wooden fish wheel out of the water. This wheel would rotate clockwise as water flowed from right to left. Openings on the near side, close to the axle, are where fish would pour out, propelled by the slanted bottom of the basket when it is nearing the top of the wheel. 

A metal fish wheel in the Tanana River, Alaska. A shelter with drying salmon is in the background. By Harvey Barrison CC BY-SA 2.0

A metal fish wheel in the Tanana River, Alaska. A shelter with drying salmon is in the background. – By Harvey Barrison/CC BY-SA 2.0

When the wheel is floated on the river, the river current turns the wheel causing the baskets to scoop down upon the salmon traveling upstream and lift them out of the water. The ingenious device can catch large amounts of fish, and the best part is that the fishermen don’t even have to be there. A holding tank is placed beside the wheel to receive the falling fish. A harvester need only come by only a few times each day to remove and process caught fish from the holding tank.

Scow Fish Wheel in Operation. Wikipedia Public Domain

Scow Fish Wheel in Operation. 

Stationary Fish Wheel in Operation OVA Wikipedia Public Domain

Stationary Fish Wheel in Operation. 

In the past, fish wheels have been used in France, Rome, Japan, on the Garonne, and in the Tiber. They were first used in the United States in North Carolinian in 1829, but their major deployment was on the Columbia River by the late 1870s where they became tremendously effective at landing upstream migrating salmon.

A fish wheel on the Columbia River in 1884. Wikipedia Public Domain

A fish wheel on the Columbia River in 1884. 

Scow Fish Wheel 1917. Wikipedia Public Domain

Scow Fish Wheel 1917. 

Fish Wheel at Cascades, Columbia River 1920. Wikipedia Public Domain

Fish Wheel at Cascades, Columbia River 1920. 

In 1906, one fish wheel operating in Columbia River reportedly pulled out half a ton of salmon daily, and it was just one of more than 75 fish wheels working the river that year. They were so useful as a fish catching device that they were banned in the United States because they threatened the salmon population. Voters passed laws that prohibited the use of these devices in the name of conservation, and fish wheel operations on the Columbia were finally banned in 1928 in Oregon, and 1935 in Washington.

A fish-wheel in Oregon 1907. Wikipedia Public Domain

A fish wheel in Oregon 1907

Fish wheels for commercial fishing are only allowed in Alaska along the Copper River and the Yukon River, but all salmon caught using these devices must be reported to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) and must be operated within state fishing guidelines.

Fish-wheel on Yukon River. Wikipedia Public Domain

Fish wheel on Yukon River. 

Fish Wheel, Yukon River, Alaska 1917. Wikipedia Public Domain

Fish Wheel, Yukon River, Alaska 1917

Today fish wheels can’t be used commercially in many places in North America, but they are ideal for researchers monitoring fish populations.