Fishing gear lost by commercial and recreational anglers in Puget Sound takes a deadly toll on marine life, from marine mammals to sea urchins.
The derelict gear, which includes old fishing nets, crab pots, fishing line, hooks and lures, is lethal litter that can keep on catching years after it is lost.
It’s incumbent upon commercial and sport fishers alike to maintain their gear in good shape and take all of the appropriate actions to keep from losing it.
For the past 10 years, the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative has been searching for, and retrieving, lost fishing gear in the shallow sub-tidal areas of Puget Sound, where fishing efforts are most concentrated and rocky reef habitat that can snag nets is most common.
It’s been a successful effort with more than 4,000 fishing nets and 3,000 crab pots recovered from the San Juan Islands to South Sound. In the process, they’ve restored some 596 acres of critical marine habitat, habitat that recovers fairly quickly when the derelict gear is removed.
The conservation group estimates that there still are some 1,000 nets in the shallow waters of Puget Sound, posing a fatal threat to marine life. The group hopes to have the bulk of those nets removed from Puget Sound by the end of the year.
It won’t happen a minute too soon. Some 241,700 marine creatures representing 240 species were entangled in the recovered fishing gear. The unintended catch included 48 marine mammals, 829 birds, more than 2,600 fish — both dead and alive — and more than 238,000 vertebrates, including dead and live crab, barnacles, sea urchins, sea stars and sea cucumbers.
Derelict gear snares and kills some 500,000 sea creatures in Puget Sound each year, according to the conservation initiative. One recent victim was a rehabilitated seal pup named Sandy. The young seal’s body was recovered this month after becoming entangled in fishing line off a pier north of Seattle.
This is a terrible waste of our precious marine resources. The ghost fishing gear also poses a threat to human safety, the economic vitality of Puget Sound fisheries and the overall health of the Puget Sound ecosystem.
Derelict crab pots pose a unique challenge. An estimated 12,000 crab pots are lost each year, mostly by recreational crabbers. Oftentimes, the crabbers think their pots were stolen, but that’s rarely the case.
More often than not, the pot and line were not properly weighted or the rope wasn’t long enough to ensure that the pot would stay on the bottom through the changing tides.
Commercial and sport crabbers are also required to use a biodegradable escape cord. If the pot is lost, the cord will degrade over time and the crabs can escape. But even a properly fitted cord allows a lost pot to keep fishing for up to four months.
Pots not equipped with biodegradable escape cords can keep fishing for up to two years.
Studies by the Northwest Straits Foundation estimate that a derelict crab pot will kill about 22 harvest-size crabs per year, along with other crab and some fish.
Again prevention is much less costly than cleanup. It costs the straits initiative folks about $190 to remove a single crab pot.
A federal stimulus grant of $4.5 million helped fund much of the derelict gear cleanup that has occurred since 2009. Additional funding is needed to complete the sub-tidal cleanup, which then hopes to expand into deeper waters.
Crabbers, salmon anglers and others who love to fish for sport or for a living must take personal responsibility for their actions. The state Department of Fish and Wildlife mailed 80,000 crab fishing education pamphlets to people who bought Puget Sound crab licenses last July and handed out another 9,000 with the help of volunteers at area boat ramps.
That’s an important outreach program. But more education is necessary to reach the thousands of recreational crabbers new to the sport. It would be worthwhile project for sport fishing groups, sporting goods stores and others.
The Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative is doing good work. Too bad they have so much work left to do.