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Environmental reporter Christopher Dunagan discusses the challenges of protecting Puget Sound and all things water-related.
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Octopus protection was a compromise move

October 12th, 2013 by cdunagan

The decision to outlaw octopus hunting at seven select diving spots in Puget Sound was a compromise between those who wanted a complete closure throughout Puget Sound and those who wanted no closure at all.

Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal. Photo by Janna Nichols

Giant Pacific octopus at Pinnacle Rock, Hood Canal.
Photo by Janna Nichols

Janna Nichols, a leader in the local scuba diving community, told me that nearly all scuba divers who spoke out wanted a complete ban on killing the giant Pacific octopus in Puget Sound. But scientific arguments were presented that the octopus population was healthy and could tolerate a limited harvest.

Janna is outreach coordinator for Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF). She has led many dive surveys of marine species and served on the octopus advisory committee appointed by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.

“From what I saw in the diving community, about 99 percent were in favor of closing all of Puget Sound to harvest, and they were a little disappointed in the outcome,” she said.

Janna said she knows divers who go spear-fishing but has only heard of divers who harvest octopuses.

“They are worth more than gold,” she said. “I have lots of diver friends who are avid spear-fishermen, but they would be really mad if someone took an octopus. They are our friends, intelligent creatures.”

The ban on taking octopuses at seven recreational dive sites went into effect Monday after action by the Fish and Wildlife Commission. The new rules make viewing octopus a priority at the dive sites, said Craig Burley, manager of the Fish Management Division at Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. He added:

“Puget Sound is one of the most popular dive destinations in the nation, and giant Pacific octopuses are one of its main attractions. These new areas provide additional protection for the species and a greater chance for divers to see these fascinating animals.”

The new restrictions were proposed after a diver legally killed a giant Pacific octopus at Seacrest Cove 2 in West Seattle. The incident was widely publicized, and many people expressed outrage, saying they had no idea it was legal to hunt the gentle and intelligent octopus.

More than 400 comments were received on the proposal to restrict the hunting of Octopuses in Puget Sound.

After working with the advisory committee, WDFW proposed a variety of options for greater or lesser protection of the octopus. In August, the Fish and Wildlife Commission approved a closure at the seven dive sites.

Conspicuously missing from the list are any locations in Hood Canal, which has several popular dive sites for spotting octopus. Hood Canal was bypassed for increased protection, because the entire waterway is currently closed to fishing for nearly all species except salmon. That’s because of the extreme stress that most deep-water species are experiencing as a result of low-oxygen conditions.

If conditions ever improve to the point that marine fish are allowed to be harvested, I would expect that the Fish and Wildlife Commission will examine which species need ongoing protection — and the octopus issue could come up again. Sund Rock and Octopus Hole, both south of Lilliwaup, are two popular dive spots to view octopus. Both are designated as marine conservation areas and will continue to protect all species from fishing.

A map of the seven new octopus protection areas along with existing marine protected areas in Puget Sound can be found on a WDFW website called “Diving with Octopuses.”

Seattle Aquarium CEO Robert W. Davidson issued a statement this week in support of the new octopus-protection areas:

“Protecting our native animals enriches our experience of life in the Sound. Scientists, sport fishers, divers and the public at large, we all have an interest in a rich marine world.

“The giant Pacific octopus is one of Puget Sound’s signature species. We look forward to continue working with the state, city, diving and fishing communities to conserve our marine environment and this magnificent octopus.”

For a fascinating description of an octopus, see my Amusing Monday piece published last May and titled “Diving with the yellow eye.” Check out “John dips below” from the program “Here Be Monsters.”

It became clear to me through this process of creating octopus-protection areas that many observers would like to see more marine protected areas for all species. Everyone agrees that such areas can be a benefit if the areas are selected carefully after adequate study and planning. The problem, as in many conservation issues, is a lack of money to perform the necessary background work.

I wrote about this issue in my ongoing series called “Taking the Pulse of Puget Sound” (subscription required). Here’s an excerpt from the story on marine protected areas:

“We have these marine protected areas,” noted Jamie Glasgow of the environmental group Wild Fish Conservancy, “but there are many different objectives and sometimes no objectives at all among the 10 or 12 agencies involved.”

Glasgow said he is frustrated by the lack of action in assessing and coordinating existing MPAs and setting up new ones. The issue has not received the attention it deserves from the Puget Sound Partnership or WDFW, he said.

“The Puget Sound Partnership tends to prioritize the issues that are less contentious,” Glasgow said. “Sport-fishing groups and tribes don’t want to give up fishing in certain areas, which makes this issue contentious, so nothing gets done.”

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"In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, and we will understand only what we are taught."Baba Dioum, Senegalese conservationist

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