Sea Catch History

Set net fishing in Cook Inlet, Alaska (AP Photo/Al Grillo, File)
Picking fish during a typical salmon set net operation in Cook Inlet, Alaska.

As with most innovations, Sea Catch was spawned from a problem solving effort.

In this case, the quandry presented itself first to Bob Schmidt and then to John McMillan on the western shore of Alaska’s Cook Inlet in the mid-1980s. Here, all commercial salmon fishing set-net sites are located on the beach or near the shoreline and all are anchored at each end to the bottom or the beach uplands. Generally, the nets are set and pulled out at specific times, but picked at slack tide by fishermen using skiffs (see photo above). During the summer fishing season, fishermen are often required by law to remove their fishing nets from the water before 9 PM. Although there are large floats at each end of the net and corks along the full length of the cork line, the entire net and its flotation system is prone to being submerged when high tides and heavy, tidal currants are combined with high winds.
If such conditions are anticipated at the 9 PM pull-out time that would prevent access and removal of the gear, fishermen would go out at the 6 PM slack tide, pick the fish out and remove their gear to avoid the high tide hardships and a possible citation by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. While picking up the gear at 6 PM would seem the wiser approach, it would also mean that 3 hours of valuable fishing time would be lost. Quite valuable in fact, since in most cases, the heavy salmon runs occur during these high tide situations.

The question then arose, “For these conditions, how can we leave the gear in the water right up to 9 PM and still access the gear and pull it out on time?” Not only would you get 3 hours of extra fishing time, but you would also have access to all the fish along the beach for that whole time period since the competitor’s fishing sites upstream would have been pulled out at 6 PM.

After experimenting unsuccessfully with pin shackles and pelican hooks, the only thing that worked best was a primitive device based on a modified set of Vice-Grip® pliers. These devices use what is called a four-point toggle linkage principle to grip and lock anything within its jaws. The jaw was replaced with one that encircled a metal ring rather than gripping it. The body of the device was fitted with a hole where it could be connected to the net. The release lever was modified with a hole where a release lanyard could be attached. Two units were required, one for the cork line and one for the lead line. The release lanyards were spliced together to form one line (20 to 30 feet) that went to a cork that stayed floating regardless of the weather and current conditions. These devices were installed in the lines during the 6 PM slack tide period and at 9 PM they worked amazingly well. A crew member in the skiff merely pulled on the release line floating at the surface. This released both devices and disconnected the cork line and lead line from the anchor. While the gear flagged out with the current, the crew then pulled the gear, fish and all, into the skiff. It may have been one of the first times in history that four point toggle linkage was used for a locking and releasing function!

Bob Schmidt's early quick release.

In the summer of 1990, John took one of the primitive four-point toggle linkage quick release made of silicon-bronze that Bob Schmidt had built (see photo at left) to Prince William Sound and used it to release the skiff during sets on a commercial salmon purse seine operation. It worked so well that it was used the entire summer and replaced the old pelican hook whose design has yet to be proven as an efficient release mechanism.

For the next several years John worked relentlessly to design a more efficient and stronger quick release that used the same toggle linkage principle. Commercial fishing was the targeted market and several devices were designed and sold that were built of cast silicon bronze. Finding these inferior in strength, he eventually found a special stainless steel plate material better suited to the locking and releasing functions of the device. The first commercial production Sea Catch units of the current design were sold in October 1994 to the sea technology industry. This is still a strong market area for the device as is drop testing, offshore petroleum, general marine and military applications. He then received a patent in 1999 for what is now known as the Sea Catch Toggle Release.

The Sea Catch is the only known quick release device in the world that uses the toggle linkage principle to both lock and release lines or objects under load.