BAINBRIDGE ISLAND, Wash. — Before they begin scooping fish out of the ocean, many trawl nets are born at a factory off Day Road.
Inside the clattering warehouse, automated looms run day and night, meticulously braiding thin, synthetic fibers into vast sheets of white netting.
"We'll load this machine up with this material and it will run for 10 days, because it's so fine," NET Systems President Dan Oliver said.
The Bainbridge Island company is the only manufacturer in North American with the looms needed to produce this knotless, polyethylene netting, a product it unabashedly calls the "world's strongest."
Squares in the netting are formed with braids instead of the traditional knots, making it less likely to loose its shape or break, according to its makers.
NET Systems incorporates the material into its trawl fishing systems, which are sold to fleets around the globe. Now the company is casting its own net wider, with an effort to introduce the same technology to the purse seine industry.
NET Systems recently took over the purse seine net making division of MARCO Global, a Seattle fishing equipment maker. Two new net lanes — long assembly lines — have already begun producing seine nets inside the Day Road factory. (Purse seines enclose fish in a bag-shaped net that is tightened like a drawstring purse.)
The purse seine industry presents an opportunity for NET Systems to expand its business. First it needs to sell seine fishermen on the value of its knotless netting.
"We're trying to convince them and show them this is a better product," said shop foreman Brian Chace, who spends part of the year fishing on a purse seiner. "This will last longer, have less distortion and have less drag through the water."
The move into the purse seine is another step for a company that has long adapted to the ebb and flow of its industry.
NET Systems (officially Nor'Eastern Trawl Systems) was founded on the island in 1978, at the start of a Pacific fishing boom. Two years earlier, Congress had passed legislation aimed at the "re-Americanization" of fisheries off the U.S. coast, encouraging rapid expansion in the domestic fleet. More boats fishing meant more work for equipment makers.
"We rode that wave," Oliver said.
Intense competition also put pressure on net builders to create gear that could catch more fish faster.
"I have to say, the early years were pretty exciting," Oliver said. " ... And the development of the trawl gear was pretty fast paced."
In following decades, stricter catch quotas capped the amount boats could expect to earn. The industry consolidated and refocused. The new impetus for net makers was to produce designs that would be less expensive to fish and more environmentally friendly.
"We're still innovative, and we're always looking for more efficient gear, but it's a different pace," Oliver said. "Now it's, 'I know how much I'm going to catch, how can I do it smarter?'"
From the start, NET Systems built its reputation on manufacturing complete trawl systems — constructing the nets, but also gear needed to deploy them. At the Day Road facility, about 60 workers are employed in three main divisions.
The net factory, where the looms are located, churns out netting. Inside the cavernous net loft next door, netting is cut, sewn and assembled by hand into a wide array of products. Fishing is NET Systems main business, but it also supplies net for recreational and scientific uses.
Finally, there's the steel shop, where metal components like the trawl doors used to spread the nets are fabricated.
Chace, who joined NET Systems from MARCO Global, said the island company's integrated model is one reason it's well suited to take on the purse seine business.
"This was a good opportunity to be involved in a company that sees the whole fishing industry," Chace said. "This, I think, is a big step in the right direction."
Information from: Kitsap Sun, http://www.kitsapsun.com/