Commercial Fishing Net Safety

Though Great Lakes commercial fishing is no longer the economic powerhouse it once was, parts of the lakes are still open to commercial fishing. There are only about 50 commercial fishing licenses in Michigan, so many boaters and anglers can go a lifetime without encountering commercial fishing equipment. However, to avoid costly and damaging collisions, boaters and anglers must know how to identify and avoid commercial fishing nets. Three types of nets currently used in the Great Lakes are gill nets, trap nets, and salmon nets.

How can I stay safe?

  •  Before you leave the dock, visit the Michigan Department of Natural Resource’s commercial fishing webpage for specific information about where nets are likely to be located.
  • Watch for colorful buoy markers or flags on the water and give them a wide berth.
  • Remember that ropes and cables may angle away from flags and buoys. Stay far away.
  • If you encounter an improperly marked net, radio the U.S. Coast Guard.

What should I do if I get tangled in a net?

  • Always keep the bow of your boat facing into the body of water.
  • Release any tension on downrigger cables and cut the cables.
  • If the propeller becomes tangled, shut off the engine completely.
  • Radio the U.S. Coast Guard.
  • Do not enter the water.

Gill nets

Vital statistics

  • Contains floats along the top and weights on the bottom (stands like a fence along the bottom, but can also be suspended)
  • Fish too big to swim through the netting get caught by the gills when they try to back out
  • Generally set perpendicular to shore and strung end-to-end in gangs that may stretch 3-5 miles
  • Single net varies in depth 6-20 ft. and length 100-400 ft.
  • Handled in boxes with 3-5 nets, or 1200-1800 ft. per box
  • Large mesh 4-5 inches for whitefish, trout, and walleye
  • Small mesh 2 3/8-3 inches for lake herring, chubs, yellow perch, and round whitefish
  • Bait mesh 1-2 inches for bait fish
  • Have been set in depths greater than 700 feet

Michigan regulations

Gill nets set in water greater than 15 feet must be marked on the surface at each end with a 4-foot staff buoy, 12″x12″ red or orange flag, and owner’s license number.

Gill nets set in water less than 15 feet must be marked on the surface at each end with a 6″x14″ float with owner’s license number, and a 1.5″x4″ float every 12 feet, or a red or orange 6″x14″ float every 300 feet.


Trap Nets

A diagram showing how a boater should avoid a trap net in the Lakes.

Vital statistics

  • Long lead net diverts fish into an enclosure (heart) and through a tunnel into a pot
  • Net has a 1000-ft., 14-inch stretched mesh lead
  • Submerged closed-top hearts and pots supported by floats, frames, and anchors
  • Wing nets lead into a V-shaped heart and box-shaped pot
  • Typically placed in water shallower than 90 ft.
  • Shallow-water lead averages 15 ft. or less in depth, with the pot 2-15 ft. in depth and 6-15 ft. in length
  • Deep-water lead averages 35 ft. or more in depth, with the pot 20-40 ft. in depth and length
  • Flag marker buoy or float at the lead end toward shore and the main anchor end that stretches into the lake
  • Pot always has a flag marker buoy
  • Floats may also be present at ends of wings


Avoid passing between buoys. Give wide berth, as they may have many anchor lines extending out in all directions from the net.

Michigan regulations

  • All trap nets must be marked with a staff buoy on the pot with at least 4 feet exposed above the surface of the water with a red or orange flag no less than 12×12 inches bearing the license number of the fisher and affixed to the top of the staff.
  • The king anchor and inside end of the lead must be marked with a red or orange float not less than 1 gallon in size.
  • Trap nets must have a 4.5-inch minimum pot mesh size. However, trap nets of 4.25 inches pot mesh size or greater may be used if they were used within 1836 treaty waters prior to May 31, 2000.
  • Small mesh trap nets having a 2.5- to 3-inch pot mesh size may be used for fishing for yellow perch, chubs, or other appropriate species.

Salmon nets

Michigan regulations

  • Nets must be marked at each end with a reflective buoy on the surface. The buoy must display the license number of the fisher.
  • Each gang of nets must have attached along the top edge of the net orange PVC floats at least 6×14 inches in size evenly spaced along the length of the gang at intervals of not more than 300 ft. of net.
  • Nets must permit shoreline residents to reasonably move in and out past the barriers.

Subsistence Fishing

Michigan regulations

Subsistence nets must be marked at each end with an orange float equivalent to at least a 1-gallon jug in size bearing the tribal identification number of the subsistence fisher. These nets may not exceed 300 feet.