More than 466,000 animals — from seals to sea birds to salmon to crabs — were found dead during the retrieval of “ghost nets” over the past 12 years by the Northwest Straits Foundation, which celebrated a major milestone today. In recognizing the end of a significant program, I’d like to add a little personal history.
The celebration in Everett marks the completion of the intense effort to retrieve nets lost from fishing boats in less than 105 feet of water — because the vast majority of the nets have been removed. Future roundups may be planned if more nets are found or reported by commercial fishers, who are now required to report lost gear.
The removal program has pulled out more than 5,660 derelict fishing nets and more than 3,800 crab and shrimp pots blamed for killing all those marine mammals, birds, fish and other creatures, according to statistics kept by the organization.
“Removing these nets restores marine habitat forever.” Joan Drinkwin, interim director of the Northwest Straits Foundation, said in a news release. “Marine mammals like porpoises, diving birds, and fish can now swim and dive in Puget Sound without the risk of being entangled in these dangerous derelict nets.”
Northwest Straits Foundation stepped up and tackled the huge ghost-net-removal project with the first grant from the Washington Legislature in 2002. Through the years, other funding came from the federal government, foundations, fishing groups, tribes, corporations and private individuals. In a separate project, U.S. Navy divers removed derelict nets from selected underwater locations.
“Just about every agency and organization in Puget Sound that works to protect and restore our marine waters has contributed to this effort,” Drinkwin said. “We have many people to thank, so this is a celebration not just of our work, but of collaboration and pulling together to achieve great things.”
I’d like to add some personal notes, giving a bit of early credit to Ray Frederick, who headed up the Kitsap Poggie Club in 2000, when Ray first called my attention to the ghost net problem.
It was right after a state initiative to ban non-Indian gillnets failed at the ballot box, leaving many sport fishermen upset with what they viewed as the indiscriminate killing of fish, including salmon listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Ray called me and said gillnet fishing will continue, but something should be done about the ghost nets. I think that was the first time I had ever heard the term. Here’s how I began the first of many stories (Kitsap Sun, June 30, 1999) I would write about this subject:
“In the murky, undersea twilight of Puget Sound, scuba divers occasionally come face to face with the tangled remains of rotting fish. Nearly invisible in the dim light, long-lost fishing nets continue to ensnare fish, birds, seals, crabs and other creatures that happen along.
“Divers call these hidden traps ‘ghost nets.’
“”It’s a little eerie, seeing fish like that,’ said Steve Fisher, an underwater photographer from Bremerton. ‘You can see that something has been eating on them, and the fish are a pretty good size — bigger than you would normally see.’”
I reported that a few net-retrieval operations had been conducted since 1986, but state officials were warning against any ad hoc operations following the death of a volunteer scuba diver, who became tangled in fishing gear and ran out of air.
Ray got involved in a campaign to seek state and federal funding to eliminate ghost nets. He wrote to Gov. Gary Locke and select legislators. I located one of Ray’s letters, which expressed frustration about the lack of action to remove the derelict gear he knew was killing sea life in Puget Sound.
State Sen, Karen Fraser, D-Lacey, who had been pushing for funding, was joined by then-Rep. Phil Rockefeller, D-Bainbridge Island, the late-Sen. Bob Oke, R-Port Orchard, and other legislators to push through funding to develop new guidelines to safely remove derelict gear. The Northwest Straits Commission, which wanted to remove ghost nets in and around the San Juan Islands, was chosen to conduct the study, which led to “Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Guidelines” (PDF 2.3 mb).
Now that most of the nets have been removed in water less than 105 feet deep, the effort must turn to removing nets in deeper water, where they are likely to snare threatened and endangered rockfish species in Puget Sound.
NOAA Fisheries and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife have listed abandoned nets as threats to rockfish and recommend action. The most promising method of removal is remotely operated vehicles. A report by Natural Resources Consultants (PDF 1.4 mb) spells out the various options.