Opinion

SOUNDOFF: Derelict gear creates killing field

The recent struggles to help salmon and orcas are epic. Among the lesser-known threats now lurking at depth in Puget Sound are a host of relative newcomers: lost commercial fishing nets, trawls, driftnets and abandoned crab pots.

Officially designated as derelict gear, they entrap sea life — from crabs, salmon, rockfish and ling cod to sharks, seals and whales. Diving birds are highly susceptible. Nets kill urchins as they drag the bottom, i.e., nothing escapes. Even clams can be trapped, growing too large to exit.

There is no malice involved. These man-made devices are merely doing what they were designed to do: catch critters. Each ensnared creature then becomes bait for the next, so the nets actually fish around the clock right up the food chain. It is a lost harvest indeed, marine life drowning at sea.

The invisibility of monofilament nets and gear, coupled with its tendency to move about with the flow until completely snagged and entangled, long ago labeled these silent hunters as “ghost nets.” Scuba divers avoid them religiously, as they present a potential for drowning. Larger nets will cripple cargo ships and tankers, or bind groups of birds and seals.

Only lost nets are a problem. In use, these efficient tools feed us cheaply. A car wrecked on a busy highway is a hazard to be removed ASAP; working equipment is not the problem.

For years, it was considered too dangerous and/or costly to remove derelict gear. Too often, attaching blame replaced recovery efforts.

Unabated, derelict gear has accumulated in alarming proportions in Puget Sound, out of sight and out of mind in passive aquatic killing fields. With an average net measuring over 1,500 feet x 400 feet, and many far larger, the total losses are impossible to calculate. Worse yet, modern filaments drifting loose in waters can survive up to 600 years.

It was with a sense of great anticipation and adventure that two boats of excited VIPs launched from Popeyesque-Roche Harbor recently to observe the raising of a snarled commercial fishing net. As soon as we were on site, Joe Schmitt produced a Zodiac craft out of thin air, and he and I were sneaking up on the roiling bubbles that broke the surface above the divers working below.

Nervous, we approached like proud, expectant parents, for this event started as our personal challenge two years ago. Joe and I are members of the Northwest Straits Commission, representing the Clallam and Island County Marine Resource Committees, respectively. MRCs put grants and scientists together to map and protect our marine assets.

Two years ago, Joe — formerly a commercial diver — prodded me to look into derelict fishing gear as a potential issue for us to tackle. A national competition for a Community-based Restoration Programs (CRP) grant presented a chance for us to make a move. Combining the expertise of Commission Chair Andrea Copping, director Tom Cowan and Padilla Bay director Terry Stevens, we proposed a derelict gear recovery pilot project for northern Puget Sound.

When you win a CRP grant, something really neat happens: Sen. Patty Murray calls you with the news. Not an aide. I was speechless.

Now on the water, we watched and snapped photos. The scene was surreal. It worked. All of it. The Sound was sunny and clear and smooth. Orcas greeted us, along with TV stations KIRO & KOMO. The protocol was transformed from wishful thinking to yards of ghost net winching up. National Public Radio described it all. It was a front-page feature in the Seattle Times. Nine local papers ran the story.

It worked so well, Joe and I suspected a fix. Things do not happen this easily — not good things. Or do they?

One thing is certain: That net kills no more.

There are tons of derelict nets in the Sound, and many more trips ahead. MRC wants to reach the diving and fishing communities, to broaden support for future recoveries. New corporate sponsors are neede, and interested citizens. A hot line will take reports of lost — or found — gear, without penalty. Recycling and disposal ideas are needed, as well as posters and pamphlets. Tribes are onboard to help.

To inquire, e-mail Gary Wood at Intertidal.consulting@verizon.net or call WSU Extension at 678-7327.

Gary Wood is executive director of the Island County Marine Resources Committee.

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