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Ever-fishing net stopped

There once was a fishing net off the coast of Sares Head, that continued to fish and fish and fish ...

Though it sounds like the beginning of a old sea folk tale of fortune, the sad truth is, this fishing net was the death of many a sea creature until it was retrieved on Thursday, Oct. 21, by Northwest Straits Commission members and a community team.

This net, and hundreds more nets and pieces of lost or abandoned fishing gear, are recognized as environmental, recreational and commercial hazards. These nets, traps, pots, lines and other fishing debris are called derelict fishing gear, and retrieving them is a priority from local Beach Watchers groups to senators and congressmen, united in the Northwest Straits Commission.

“The same nets keep fishing and fishing for decades. Fish act as bait for other fish and the net keeps fishing,” said Paul Dinnel, who is research scientist at Western Washington University’s Shannon Point Marine Center in Anacortes, and involved with the Northwest Straits Commission’s work.

Dinnel said the first step the commission took was to establish guidelines on how to locate and retrieve derelict gear, how to act in a manner that would not endanger divers or the local habitat and how to dispose of the gear in a way that would not endanger any other ecosystem or lives.

He said at first, it was hard to get exact locations for the nets because for so long fishermen were afraid to report their lost or abandoned gear for fear of receiving a fine. The Northwest Straits Commission and the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife, however, made a database where divers, fishermen or others who had sighted any gear could make a report, without having to worry about a fine and with the possibility of getting their gear back.

After creating a current database, the group mapped out where the gear was reported, graphed it into the correct longitudes and latitudes, employed fishing boats, divers and retrieval gear and got to work.

“It has turned into a pretty successful project,” Dinnel said. “Once we had success the first year, we received more funding.”

Funding for this projects come from the Salmon Recovery Founding Board, King County mitigation funding, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Tulalip Tribes and the Greystone Foundation.

Net hunting at Sares Head

On this particular retrieval trip off of Sares Head in the Deception Pass area, the group was after a rather large net.

“These nets can be quite dangerous to work around,” Dinnel said.

He tells of a women who was diving near Edmonds, when she got tangled up in some derelict fishing gear. Her air ran out with her struggles and she died in her efforts to free herself.

As safety measures, the gear retrieval divers use 300 feet of hose, which pumps them surface air, and a back-up diver to rotate the work load, or in case one of them gets tangled.

The fishing vessel Bet-Sea, captained by Doug Monk, is the vessel employed by the Northwest Straits Commission to help carry out this expedition. Across its top, the boat sports a yellow banner that says, “Fish Research.”

A little ways away from the boat, two seals watch the process and bob their heads with the waves, watching their home cleared of its dangerous debris.

As the men on board start to pull the net up, Jeffrey June, who represents Natural Resources Consultants Inc. as a fisheries biologist, and is also involved with the Northwest Straits Commission and Marine Resource Committees, said they first learned about this particular net in November of 2001. So they know it has acted as trap for almost three years, if not longer. June said the oldest net they had retrieved had sat in the Sound since 1975.

To retrieve the net, the divers, Jack Iotte and Ken Woodside, both independent divers from port Angeles, explore its measurements and surroundings and scout out a plan.

Walking the sea bottom

Iotte said after diving in where the net was reported last seen, they walk along the shore wall or coastal floor until they locate the net.

“When Jack gets down there, he walks the height and depth of the net,” June said. “After Jack gives me the length, he gives me anything that might have gotten caught.”

June said they have found fish, sea birds, diving birds and marine mammals such as seals and river otters trapped in nets.

“We just look for them until we find them, start hooking ropes to them and haul them up,” Iotte said.

As this net came out of the water and was pulled aboard, it looked like the skin of a tired old sea monster. In its folds, it had swallowed a few birds, sea weed, kelp, oysters, sponges, shell clusters, bones, fishing rods, lines and tackle, lures, and one small half-alive lingcod.

After examining the net, June and the other men log the findings and numbered organisms for impact studies. They free the net of any large shell clusters and rocks, and then bag and seal it.

The only place they have found to take these nets is the Port Angeles land fill, because of their biohazardous nature.

“It costs $4,000 a day. It’s not cheap, but when you count up the cost of derelict fishing gear on nature, it’s pretty cost effective,” June said. “These nets separate nature from habitat. When you look at the amount of surface habitat we are freeing, it’s worth it.

The ever-fishing fish net is captured and its curse on the seas of the Northwest is ended, this story, however, does not yet have a “happily ever after” ending. Hundreds more nets and other fishing debris still haunt the coasts of the Pacific Northwest’s marine water, but with the efforts to retrieve derelict fishing gear, each retrieval story will consistently end with the waters one net less encumbered.

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