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Derelict fishing nets' toll: 30,000 marine birds, 110,000 fish and 2 million invertebrates a year

Crew members of the F/V Bet-Sea recover a gill net snagged on a reef 27 feet below the water, Sept. 25. This one net has been killing marine life for nearly 40 years. It will kill no more.  - Russell Sadler
Crew members of the F/V Bet-Sea recover a gill net snagged on a reef 27 feet below the water, Sept. 25. This one net has been killing marine life for nearly 40 years. It will kill no more.
— image credit: Russell Sadler

NORTHWEST OF YELLOW ISLAND, SAN JUAN CHANNEL — "Lost" gill nets are never really lost.

Fishing boat operators cut loose snagged nets and get their boats free and head for port. The derelict nets remain where they were snagged — often for decades — catching and killing marine life.

The Northwest Straits Foundation estimates derelict gill nets capture and kill an estimated 30,000 marine birds, 110,000 fish and 2 million invertebrates, like crabs, annually over an area of 645 acres of Puget Sound marine habitat. Since 2001, the foundation's Derelict Net Survey and Removal Project has removed 1,300 gill nets covering 280 acres through June of this year. The effort was stalling for lack of money.

The foundation was recently awarded a $4.6 million economic stimulus grant through the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to find and recover the approximately 3,000 remaining gill nets in Puget Sound, according to foundation official Ginny Broadhurst.

Cleaning up the past is neither easy nor cheap. A group of foundation officials, financial donors and a reporter were bundled aboard the whale-watch boat Orca Express on Sept. 25 for a trip out to watch the F/V Bet-Sea recover a gill net snagged on a reef 27 feet below the water. The surrounding water is more than 60 feet deep.

Diver Jack Iott is climbing down the dive ladder into the 46-degree water as we arrive. Iott is in a dry suit with a helmet. Because of the swirling currents, divers can get snagged by the nets they are removing. To avoid running out of air, protocol requires divers to wear a helmet supplied by air from a compressor aboard the boat through a hose. There are always two qualified divers aboard so one can assist if the other gets snagged, according to Project Manager Tom Cowan. The Bet-Sea's captain, Doug Monk, is also the alternate diver on this crew. The helmet also allows the diver to be in constant verbal communication with the dive boat.

Iott is cutting the net into large pieces underwater, then folding the pieces into bundles. When Iott has a large bundle, he attaches inflatable airbags to the net and floats them to the surface. This procedure avoids further damage to marine habitat that could occur by dragging the derelict net off the snag, across the bottom and into the dive boat.

Once the cut and folded pieces of net are on the surface, the crew of the Bet-Sea hooks a line to the net and lifts it aboard with the boat's crane. As the net comes aboard, marine biologist Brad DeLong of Natural Resource Consultants identifies the marine species killed or captured by the net and, according to protocol, drops them back in the water. This net was made of cotton — no longer used after the introduction of monofilament line in the 1970s. This one net has been killing marine life for nearly 40 years. It will kill no more.

The $4.6 million in federal stimulus money and private foundation donations will employ 38 people aboard four fishing boats that were previously involved in the once-profitable sea cucumber fishery that crashed at the beginning of the Great Recession, according to Broadhurst. The project is schedule to be completed by the end of 2010.

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