Crews fish out Lost Nets to Save Trapped Wildlife

(Credit Bryan DeLong, Natural Resources Consultants)

USA Today, May 18, 2010
By Greg Latshaw

Beneath the frigid waters of Washington state’s Puget Sound, thousands of abandoned nets once used by fishermen to trap salmon by their gills keep working.

They now indiscriminately catch marine life. With no one to pull up the plastic nets, captured animals can’t escape and become bait for other creatures to enter the nets.

That cycle has entangled and killed nearly 54,000 animals in 2,775 fishing nets removed from Puget Sound by the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative since 2002, says Ginny Broadhurst, executive director of the commission coordinating the effort.

Derelict fishing gear — dubbed “ghost gear” by fishers and conservationists — comes in forms such as nets, crab pots and fishing traps. The gear’s potential to ensnare animals, damage boats and alter the natural landscape plagues coastal waters around the USA. The problem was dramatized last week when a young gray whale entangled in rope and netting died after swimming listlessly close to shore south of Los Angeles.

Fishers often lose nets by accident when they are displaced by storms or cut by a passing boat, says Lisa DiPinto, acting director of the Marine Debris Program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The program since 2005 has undertaken studies on the impact that discarded gear has on habitats in Alaska, Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, Virginia, Washington and the U.S. Virgin Islands. “It poses a continued threat to our habitats and species,” DiPinto says.

In Puget Sound, animals found in the nets — 51,588 invertebrates, 1,355 fish, 731 birds and 44 mammals — are only a snapshot of the damage the nets have done for decades, Broadhurst says.

Aided by $4.6 million in federal stimulus money, the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative has doubled the number of nets its divers have recovered since July 2009.

“We’ve found over 190 different species caught in the net,” Broadhurst says.

In the northwestern islands of Hawaii, endangered Hawaiian monk seals have become entangled in ghost nets and drowned, says Kirsten Gilardi, executive director of the SeaDoc Society at the University of California-Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.

Helped by advances in technology — and their dropping prices — scientists have mapped spots in Chesapeake Bay where lost crab pots have accumulated, says Kirk Havens, assistant director for the Center for Coastal Resources Management at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.

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