Lost nets, crab pots pulled from Whatcom County waters

Divers have pulled 1,339 nets and 653 crab pots from marine waters in Whatcom County as part of the effort to remove lost and abandoned gear that has snared and indiscriminately killed marine life, sometimes for decades.

It’s a piece of the larger project to remove so-called derelict fishing gear, also called legacy gear, from shallow water — within 105 feet of the surface — in the Puget Sound.

Locally, most of the gear that’s been pulled has come from areas around Point Roberts and Lummi Island. Other locations of note were Bellingham Bay, Chuckanut Bay and Cherry Point, according to Joan Drinkwin, interim director for the Bellingham-based Northwest Straits Foundation, which has led the gear-removal effort that started in 2002.

Of the crab pots, 235 were removed from Boundary Bay.

A total of 102,212 animals have been found dead or entangled in the abandoned gear taken out of Whatcom County waters since then. They represented 185 species, including porpoise, seal, cormorants, loons, grebes, China rockfish, copper rockfish, quillback rockfish, lingcod, salmon and Dungeness crab, according to the foundation.

Gear that’s been removed from Whatcom County will be added to the 5,400 derelict fishing nets and 3,700 crab pots that the nonprofit Northwest Straits has taken from Puget Sound since 2002.

Removing derelict gear is a must because it traps and kills thousands of marine wildlife each year, smothers and degrades marine habitats, endangers recreational divers who could be trapped and drowned, and hurts navigation by fouling ships’ props, according to the foundation.

“There are a variety of things that impact the health of the Puget Sound ecosystem, this being one of those many things,” said Kyle Antonelis, a fishery analyst with Natural Resources Consultants Inc., of the abandoned gear.

“You can see the immediate value in it when you pull up a gear and see the impacts of the gear,” Antonelis added.

The Seattle-based marine consulting company has a contract with the initiative to run the field operations for the project, which has helped restore more than 705 acres of Puget Sound marine habitat over 12 years, including 200 acres in Whatcom County.

“If you care about Puget Sound, if you value being able to see the wildlife in Puget Sound, and you value the beauty of Puget Sound, then you care about removing these derelict nets,” Drinkwin said.

The work in Whatcom County wrapped up a few days ago, out at Point Roberts. Crews also focused on Alden Bank during this round of the project here.

Drinkwin said the work in the county was part of the last push to pull derelict fishing nets from shallow water, and was made possible by $3.5 million approved by the Legislature in 2013. The foundation planned to finish removing the remaining nets from shallow sub-tidal areas of Puget Sound by June 30.

“It’s a significant milestone on the path to recovering Puget Sound,” Drinkwin said.

Crews have worked in areas that are known fishing grounds. They’ve used sonar to help find crab pots, which were mostly recreational, and fishing nets, which were commercial.

After this, the foundation will turn its attention to retrieving derelict nets in water deeper than 105 feet and derelict crab pots. Drinkwin said about 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in Puget Sound, and most of them are recreational.

The foundation also will maintain its Reporting, Response, and Retrieval Program to prevent new lost nets from accumulating in the Puget Sound.

“We know that fishermen are not trying to lose their nets,” Drinkwin said.

That will be helped by a partnership with today’s fishermen, who, if they’re fishing commercially, are required to report lost gear within 24 hours, according to Drinkwin.