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Marine debris clean=up funded

There should be more salmon for anglers once a new effort to remove old debris from Puget Sound waters is executed. Old fishing and crabbing nets and other hazards kill many salmon as well as bottom fish. - Ken George
There should be more salmon for anglers once a new effort to remove old debris from Puget Sound waters is executed. Old fishing and crabbing nets and other hazards kill many salmon as well as bottom fish.
— image credit: Ken George

Professional divers will soon be ridding Puget Sound of some of its “derelict gear,” the technical name given to the hundreds of tons of fishing debris such as lost or abandoned nets and crab pots that poses a significant threat to salmon and other native wildlife.

The Northwest Straits Commission (NWSC), which includes the Marine Resources Committee of Island County as well as six other counties around Northern Puget Sound, recently received a $75,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to start up the derelict gear pilot program. These funds will by matched by NWSC through non-federal grants.

Although it’s not exactly an environmental hot topic, derelict gear is actually quite widespread throughout Puget Sound, said NWSC director Tom Cowan. And, he added, “it’s a huge problem.”

Cowan said that fishing debris, accumulated over decades, continues to kill fish, shellfish, marine birds and mammals, either by trapping them in pots or tangling them in nets. And there’s literally tons of the stuff.

“It’s going to take a concentrated effort over quite a period of time to remove the gear,” said Cowan. The project goal, he added, is to remove 12 tons.

Don Meehan, financial officer for Island County MRC, said it is not known how much derelict gear exists around Whidbey Island. He added that, because fishing tends to be heavier on the west side of the island, researchers expect that to be an area where debris is more concentrated.

“We are anxious to get a better understanding of it,” he said.

Meehan said that the project, however extensive it turns out to be locally, will go a long way toward preserving existing habitats.

“This project actually removes existing hazards to sea life with direct immediate benefit,” he said.

Before any removal occurs, however, researchers must first develop a project protocol on how to go about it, and not only because it’s never been done before. It’s also very dangerous work, only to be undertaken by experienced commercial divers.

“There’s never been a comprehensive effort made to locate and remove this derelict gear,” Cowan said. The first step is to locate and map as much debris as they can. After that, folks at the NWSC will sit down and hatch out a careful plan for bringing the derelict gear to the surface and disposing of it.

“We’re concentrating on fishing gear,” Cowan said. “What we’re primarily concerned about is lost nets, gill nets and purse-seiner nets.”

Besides the obvious value of cleaning up local waters, Cowan also hopes to enlighten the public about an environmental crisis that hasn’t received an awful lot of publicity. One reason for this, he pointed out, is that unacknowledged problems don’t usually get much funding.

“This has never been on the radar screen before in any significant way,” Cowan said about the hazards of derelict gear. “It’s never been a real priority with the Department of Fish and Wildlife.”

With salmon depletion receiving so much attention in recent years, Cowan said it’s ironic “that you’ve got a situation where you’re needlessly killing salmon.”

Meehan also spoke to the dangers or lost or abandoned gear.

“Fishing gear is designed to catch the wonderful seafood we have all grown to love here in the Puget Sound,” he said. “Derelict gear catches the seafood, but it never makes it to our tables. The gear continues to catch day after day without regard to the resource.”

The hope, Meehan said, is that such gear will be recovered and managed in the future, through cooperative programs that address the needs of both the local fishing industry and existing marine habitats.

“This program is not about regulations, but about science and partnership between our natural resource industries and local citizens,” Meehan said.

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