Derelict gear threatens sea-life
June 17, 2008 · Updated 1:51 PM
by CLAUDIA BRADLEY
The Northwest Straits Commission, headquartered in Mt. Vernon, Wash., reports that divers removing derelict fishing gear near Lopez Island found a total of 41 nets in an area covering approximately nine acres of seabed on a three-day survey this summer. On July 30, U.S. army divers undergoing specialized training to locate and remove derelict fishing nets reported finding a net 100 feet off Lopez Island with a three-foot pile of bones under it. University of Washington scientists later said it was likely that tens of thousands of birds had been caught and died in that net.
Abandoned, lost and discarded fishing nets can be found throughout the world's oceans and are a particular concern in the waters of Puget Sound. Ginny Broadhurst, interim director of the Northwest Straits Commission says, "The removal of derelict gear is an exciting global issue we are addressing locally. We have been so successful that we are now training other coastal states in the surveying and removal of derelict gear."
Common types of derelict fishing gear include gillnets, purse seine nets, aquaculture nets, crab and shrimp pots, and lines and ropes. Gear loss is inevitable because bad weather, mechanical failures and human error consistently provide circumstances which cause gear to be left in marine waters.
In addition to direct entanglement and mortality of fish, birds, crustaceans, and marine mammals, it has been shown that derelict gear also negatively impacts the habitat by increasing sedimentation, scouring the seabed and blocking eelgrass growth. Gillnet meshes trap fine sediment, creating a coating over hard, rocky habitat that suffocates most immobile organisms such as mussels and anemones. Nets draped over high-relief rocky habitat prevent access to caves and depressions frequented by juvenile and adult rockfish. Tidal movement of lead lines and ropes scour attached animals and vegetation off the seabed. Derelict crab pots can block up to 50 percent of the eelgrass growth in their footprint. The gear also poses a severe threat to navigation by fouling props and rudders and damaging vessels.
"Removal of derelict fishing gear is really rewarding work," says Jeff June, field manager for the Northwest Straits Commission derelict fishing gear removal program. "We see an immediate positive benefit as fish swim back into the reclaimed areas plus a long-term benefit as the habitat is restored."
June says the most memorable derelict gear removal this summer was a gill-net in the eel grass off of Lime Kiln Park on San Juan Island where the orcas frequently feed. The fisherman reported it promptly to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), who reported it to the Northwest Straits Commission and then to June's team out in the field. "It was an example of interagency cooperation," said June. "It was about the time the baby orca (L-108) was first seen. Although we have never pulled up a dead killer whale, the net in their feeding area off Lime Kiln was extremely hazardous. As it is, there were dead harbor seals and lots of birds and fish in the net when we got there."
The WDFW has a no-fault reporting system. To report lost or abandoned gear call the WDFW hotline at 1-800-477-6224 or use the online reporting form at wdfw.wa.gov/fish/derelict/derelict_gear.htm.