Collection effort saves sea life

PORT TOWNSEND - An operation to clear Puget Sound and the North Olympic Peninsula's waters of derelict commercial fish nets has cleared more than 10,000 pounds of nets that trapped and killed thousands of salmon, bottom fish, crab, sea mammals and diving birds.

“We’re going full blast now,” said Jeff June, a Northwest Straits Commission consultant who is overseeing diving operations out of Port Townsend and Port Angeles, as well as Everett and Tacoma, that began in July.

June said that, through August, fish net cleanup crews — made up of commercial divers who normally walk the ocean floor for sea cucumbers and geoducks and see the dangers the nets pose — pulled 173 nets, many of them choked with the remains of sea life that include seals and porpoises.

Decades of thriving Puget Sound commercial and recreational fisheries have left tons of old fishing gear behind, as bad weather, mechanical failures and human error caused fishermen to lose or abandon their gear.

Thousands of crab pots litter the sea floor, and thousands of nets are caught in rocky outcroppings and draped along waterways.

Gill nets and crab pots used by commercial and sport fishers can continue to trap sea life long after the original owners have abandoned the gear.

The Northwest Straits Commission has set a goal to clear 90 percent of existing derelict fishing nets from Puget Sound by 2012 through the Northwest Straits Initiative, which surveys and removes lost fishing gear.

The Northwest Straits Foundation earlier this year was awarded $4.6 million in economic stimulus funding through a grant.

During the next 18 months, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will provide resources to find and remove an estimated 3,000 derelict nets that remain in the Sound.