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Abandoned fishing gear, crab pots are ‘perpetual killing machines’ in San Juan waters

Divers with the state Department of Natural Resources remove a derelict crab pot and fishing net from the sea. An estimated 4,000 abandoned fishing nets, and as many as 20,000 derelict crab pots, are still ‘fishing’ in Puget Sound, according to the Northwest Straits Commission. - Contributed photo / Department of Natural Resources
Divers with the state Department of Natural Resources remove a derelict crab pot and fishing net from the sea. An estimated 4,000 abandoned fishing nets, and as many as 20,000 derelict crab pots, are still ‘fishing’ in Puget Sound, according to the Northwest Straits Commission.
— image credit: Contributed photo / Department of Natural Resources

Perhaps it should comes as no surprise, but the enormity of the problem is stunning in its own right. And the statistics and casualties just keep piling up.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Northwest Straits Commission, the San Juans are home to the highest concentration of derelict fishing gear anywhere in Puget Sound.

Northwest Straits Director Ginny Broadhurst contends that currents and the many rocks and reefs in the archipelago, as well as the islands’ legacy as a commercial fishing hub, would account for the chart-leading accumulation of derelict and deadly fishing gear.

In a July 15 presentation to the San Juan County Council, Broadhurst acknowledged there’s a lot of the Sound which has yet to be surveyed. Divers and boats equipped with sidescan sonar surveyed roughly 53 nautical miles of seabed during the 10-day long data quest. That’s less than 10 percent of the known fishing grounds in the Sound.

Still, Broadhurst said the survey turned up 261 abandoned fishing nets and 4,797 wayward crab pots overall. Areas in and around Hood Canal, Point Roberts, Lawson Reef and Similk Bay were surveyed in addition to the pair of day-long investigations on the south end of San Juan and Lopez islands.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of area in the San Juans we haven’t surveyed yet,” she said.

Nevertheless, the accumulation of derelict gear in the San Juans translates into roughly 13 nets for every mile of shoreline, with much higher concentrations in heavily-fished areas, and densities of abandoned crab pots ranging from 26 pots per square kilometer to 135 pots per square kilometer in some areas.

“The impact to crabs is much higher than you might expect,” Broadhurst said. “Around 37 percent of pots are still actively fishing and about 10 percent of the state harvest level is being wasted in these type of traps.”

The Northwest Straits Commission is a federally-funded, grassroots program born of the 1997 Northwest Straits Initiative sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray and then-Rep. Jack Metcalf. It provides funding for seven marine resource committees in North Puget Sound and a phalanx of citizen-based marine restoration efforts. The commission received $1.6 million in federal funding in 2007.

Its derelict fishing gear removal program has earned the commission accolades and allies at the state, federal and tribal level. Its partners include the state Department of Natural Resources, the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration as well as numerous tribal governments in the Puget Sound region.

First launched in 2002, the program has removed 874 fishing nets covering more than 230 miles of marine habitat and weighing just under 135,000 pounds, as well as more than 1,500 crab pots. The commission estimates 4,000 abandoned nets remain in the Sound and that roughly 17,000 crab pots have gone adrift in the past 3-5 years.

County Council Chairman Howie Rosenfeld describes abandoned fishing gear and crab pots as “perpetual killing machines.”

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