Discarded fishing nets continue to catch wildlife

Thousands of marine animals — from mammals to invertebrates — die each year after becoming entangled in lost fishing gear.

“These nets, generally gillnets, continue fishing after they are lost or abandon,” Joan Drinkwin, principal contractor for Natural Resources Consultants, told the audience at her talk Tuesday, June 25, at The Whale Museum.

The event was free to the public, and the first of the museum’s “Summer Lecture Series.”

Due to their very design, Drinkwin explained, nets, which can stretch two miles long and stand 10-50 feet high, continue to collect and kill or “fish” when left drifting, with no help from human hands. Natural Resource Consultants is a company that has been working with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources and the Northwest Straits Initiative to remove abandoned fishing gear. The derelict net removal program began in 2002. As of 2016, the team had removed nearly 6,000 nets from Puget Sound. Those nets contained 298,383 different types of animals from birds to fish to mammals. Of that total, 255 were unique species.

In San Juan County they have retrieved 2,224 nets in shallow waters. Those nets contained 494,939 animals: 81 were mammals, like otters, seals and porpoise; 1,249 were birds; 5,839 were assorted fish, including some endangered species; and the rest of the bycatch consisted of invertebrates.

“This is just a snapshot of what you see in these nets,” Drinkwin said.

In 2015 a derelict net was reported off Orcas Island. Responding divers headed out to retrieve it and videotaped their findings. Drinkwin showed a clip of that video, the gillnet wrapped tightly around a harbor seal’s neck as the decaying animal swung gently in the current as if hanging by a noose beneath the waves. Another dead seal was also entangled close beside it. The body of a river otter dangled in the distance, it too trapped by the same large net.

“It was the worst net in this area that we have come across,” Drinkwin said.

Using identification tags, Drinkwin and her team were able to track the net’s origins to a Canadian vessel. It had been wrapped in a plastic bag on the back of the boat that had fallen off, according to its owners. In a short amount of time, with the effects of tides and currents, it became unraveled and began fishing.

Drinkwin noted that RCW 77.12.870 mandates boaters report lost gear within 24 hours and provide the location so that it may easily be retrieved.

As with other environmental issues, derelict nets don’t just affect wildlife. Drinkwin pointed out the tangible human impacts as well. Abandoned fishing gear can cause damage to vessels should they become entangled with propellers, and can cause navigational hazards as well as economic impacts due to lost fishing or crabbing opportunities. The Washington State Ferry Yakima was out of service in May 2018 due to a crab pot damaging its propeller, delaying county’s ferry service at the beginning of tourist season.

Each year, approximately 12,000 crab pots are lost in the Salish Sea. On average, Drinkwin said, each pot continues to trapping and killing crabs for two years. A single pot kills approximately 22 crabs a year. Approximately 264,000 crabs are dying each year in derelict pots, putting a huge dent in the population, impacting wildlife as well as the number of crabs left for human consumption.

There are still 236 derelict nets reported in waters deeper than 100 feet in San Juan County. Most are along the west side of San Juan Island, Drinkwin said.

She noted that one problem with removing these deepwater nets — those located in waters over 100 feet — is the high cost. In an innovative partnership, Natural Resources Consultants has joined with the United States Army, which has soldiers in need of dive training. This joint effort called the Army Deepwater Derelict Net Removal Project utilizes army divers to collect deepwater nets. The Army is providing the divers, the decompression chamber and other necessary dive equipment, and contracting with a local contractor for the vessel. Department of Natural Resources is providing disposal and is paying for the local project management. In-kind donations, according to Drinkwin, pay for those costs.

“When I approached them [the Army], they said, ‘It’s over 100 feet deep? Dark? Strong currents? We are in!’” Drinkwin told the audience.

The Army vessel Seahorse, along with 20 soldiers from the United States Army’s 569th Engineer Dive Detachment will be arriving on San Juan Island on July 7. Diving will occur on weekdays from July 8-28. Drinkwin assured the crowd that the Seahorse will have a “Be Whale Wise” flag on board and crew will adhere to all whale guidelines as the work will be done near prime Southern resident orca feeding habitat, between False Bay and Eagle Point, located on the southwest side of the island.

“They are really great guys,” Drinkwin said. “And they are super productive.”

Monica Shoemaker, restoration manager of the Washington Department of Natural Resources aquatic restoration program, spoke on cleaning up marine debris. In San Juan County, thanks to her marine restoration program, 702,090 pounds of creosote logs have been removed since 2014. Creosote is often used on piers and is a toxic chemical found to cause cancer in humans, she said, and leaches out into the water. The tar-like substance is also harmful to fish, she explained, saying “when fish try to lay eggs on it, none of the eggs survive.”

Derelict docks that have been torn loose due to storms is another form of marine debris that her team collects. Should anyone come across large pieces of debris while on the beach or on water, take a picture of it and upload it to mycoast.org/wa. From that app and website, the debris can be mapped, recorded and a crew will be sent to retrieve it.

When asked about how much debris was left, Shoemaker explained that is was difficult to say, in part because there is new waste entering the Salish Sea every day. She guessed, however, that half of the documented debris had been cleaned up.

Drinkwin told audience members after the talk that while the scheduling and planning of cleaning up gill nets can be difficult, the process itself is fairly simple with tangible rewards.

“The wonderful thing about it is, once these nets are removed, the environment recovers in that area, almost immediately,” Drinkwin said.

Contributed photo, Northwest Straits Initiative.

Contributed photo, Northwest Straits Initiative.

Contributed photo, Monica Shoemaker.

Contributed photo, Monica Shoemaker.

Contributed photo, Monica Shoemaker.

Contributed photo, Monica Shoemaker.

Contributed photo, Northwest Straits Initiative.

Contributed photo, Northwest Straits Initiative.