Ghost Fishing Nets Being Vanquished In Puget Sound

May 21, 2013

Fishing nets are designed to ensnare fish. But when those nets are lost or abandoned at sea, they don’t stop catching fish. Instead, they become ghost nets – floating death traps for the marine life that continue to get trapped in their mesh.

  Ghost nets are a problem internationally – but there’s an international response underway. And some of the leaders in the movement are at work in the Pacific Northwest. Ashley Ahearn reports for EarthFix.

Doug Monk captains the 39-foot Bet Sea out into the waters of Puget Sound, just south of the Canadian border.

Monk: “We’re going to Point Roberts – it’s a heavily fished area, lots of gill netting, lots of crab netting out there.”

Monk’s been a commercial diver on the Olympic Peninsula for some 20 years harvesting shellfish and sea cucumbers to make a living.

But for the past decade, he’s been after a different harvest: ghost nets.

Monk: “We pulled nets that have 50-60 birds in ‘em. 1200 crabs. I think if people realized the detriment it’s done to the waters they would have taken care of it a long time ago but it’s good to see them doing it now.”

Monk contracts for the Northwest Straits Foundation. It’s a non-profit that runs a program to remove ghost nets from Puget Sound.

They find the nets using underwater sonar and then they send divers down to remove them.

Monk steers the boat into place and drops anchor near the location of one of the ghost nets.

Just in this one area off the shore of Point Roberts the team has removed close to 800 nets. There are about 300 left to pull up.

On the back deck Ken Woodside straps on his diving gear and spits into his mask to keep it from fogging up. Then he steps down into the 43 degree water.

His voice is piped in over the ship loudspeaker so the crew can hear what he’s saying from the seafloor – and help him find the nets down there.

Woodside: “I’ve got about 4 feet of visibility.”

Monk: “You’re more 5 o’clock Kenny, a little to your right.”

Woodside finds the net and begins disentangling it from the rocks and reefs. Then the crew drops him a line and he attaches it to the net so it can be pulled to the surface.

His slow breathing fills the speakers for the next 45 minutes as he works. And then:

Woodside: “Ok, pull it up.”

The net breaks the surface like a sea monster – a tattered brown mass that stinks like rotting things. Sea stars and crabs squirm among the tangles. Here and there a fish jawbone drops out on the deck. It’s beautiful in its own horrible way.

Ken Woodside surfaces soon after the net and climbs back onboard to describe what he saw.

Woodside: “The dead crab carapaces would just kind rain down with all the net and everything else.”

Ahearn: “As the net was going up?”

Woodside: “Yeah.”

Dungeness crab is a major fishery here - with catch values of around 60 million dollars annually in Washington and Oregon.

Joan Drinkwin - the programs director of the Northwest Straits Foundation – says ghost nets mean valuable lost revenue for the crabbing industry.

Drinkwin: “We’re estimating that the crabs that have been killed in the nets that we’ve removed to date at Point Roberts have cost the commercial crab fishery about 300K every year that the nets were there.”

That’s to say nothing of the porpoises, seals, diving birds, salmon and rockfish the group has found in the nets it’s removed.

And this problem’s not limited to the Northwest.

Pascal van Erp is a diver from the Netherlands. He saw his first ghost net when he was diving on a ship wreck in the North Sea. The net almost entangled him.

van Erp: “It was a very scary thing. But we also noticed that a lot of sea life was captured by the nets and the fishing lines.”

The images haunted van Erp. So he founded Ghostfishing International. The nonprofit is raising awareness about the issue and connecting people around the world who are working to remove nets. Right now there are groups in places like Iceland, Italy, Australia, Kuwait and Dubai - to name a few.

van Erp: “Every group I spoke til now thought at one moment they were alone in this. It’s very cool to see there are 16 organizations acting on this problem now.”

Van Erp says clean up is only part of the solution. Fishermen need to be trained not to lose nets and report them if they do, but there are no international regulations for lost fishing gear.

Here in Puget Sound fishermen are required to report lost nets.

The Northwest Straits Foundation works with several local tribes as well as the fishing industry to get the word out about the problem.

Joan Drinkwin stands by as another giant net is pulled out of the deeps and onto the ship’s deck. She says fewer nets are lost each year in Puget Sound. That’s because there aren’t as many fishermen and gear has improved. That gives her hope.

Drinkwin: “It’s one of the few really big problems that we can solve. We know how to solve it and we’re making a huge amount of progress.”

The group estimates that there are 1000 ghost nets left in the shallower parts of the Sound. No one knows how many there are globally.

Copyright 2013 Northwest Public Radio