Three thousand. That’s the target number of derelict nets removed from Puget Sound and one of the goals of the “Removal of Fishing Gear in Puget Sound” project, managed by Northwest Strait Foundation. The project, funded through NOAA by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (aka stimulus funding), started in earnest at the end of July 2009 and has been going full-steam ever since.
On December 18, 2009, I joined the crew of the Tenacious, one of the project’s four removal vessels, for a day of derelict net removal. I met the boat at the Port Townsend Marina and we took off right away. The skipper and dive master, Brian Santman, steered the 30-foot vessel southeast toward our destination, Foulweather Bluff. The day was crisp and cold, overcast with a touch of blue sky, nice working weather for December.
On the way over, Steve Franklin and Joe Littlefield, the divers, filled me in.
“Both of us have been diving for years, and have our own boats and fishing license,” said Joe “but we have also been working with Brian for many years. So when this project came up, we joined him again to remove derelict nets.”
Divers Steve (left) and Joe
“This is a great job.” said Steve. “It makes me feel good to remove all these old nets from the Sound. Some nets we bring up have animals entangled in them.”
Back from a dive
Pete Anderson, a biologist with Natural Resource Consultant, a long time partner with Northwest Strait Foundation, keeps track of the data on nets removed and what was found in them. He enters it all into a database that the Northwest Strait Foundation has been maintaining since the derelict gear removal program started in 2002.
Pete disentangling a crab pot from the net
At our destination, about 200 yards north of Foul Weather Bluff, we dropped anchor and Joe suited up and jumped into the cold waters of the Puget Sound. The divers use an airline, weight belt and heavy boots—they don’t swim, but walk on the bottom of the Sound. The airline provides unlimited air supply, a huge safety advantage when working with nets that can entangle divers and is also a way to send equipment down to the diver or pull the diver in. Even at only 50 feet below the surface, visibility is quite poor so it is important to drop the diver right on location. Modern GPS technology and Brian’s skills make that possible. There is two-way communication between the diver and the boat, and the diver can tell us what he sees and does.
It didn’t take long for an air bag to float up, carrying with it part of a net. The other part was tied to the winch line and the net was pulled on deck. It was a messy net, with lots of organic growth on it as well as several sea stars and a few small crabs. It was time for me to put the camera away and pitch in to help clean the net. We threw the crabs and sea star back in the water, separated the gillnet lead line (95% of the nets removed in this area are gillnets – monofilament net) and packed the net in a heavy-duty garbage bag.
Joe back from a dive
“We try to separate the lead line from the net.” said Brian. “We clean the lead lines and will try to recycle the whole line or the lead. It is not a good thing to toss this lead into a landfill.”
Steve handling a large net
Joe came back up after nearly an hour in the water and then Steve went in and sent more nets and bundles of lead lines to the surface. By the end of the day the divers had removed eight loads total–six large gillnets and two bundles of lead line. One net had a recreational crab pot entangled in it – a bonus item to remove.
Brian (left) and Joe handling a large net pulled on deck
The day was getting darker and it was time to head back. As we sailed toward Port Townsend on the one-hour “commute” back to the dock, Joe and Steve, instead of stepping into the cabin to relax after a hard day’s work, stayed out on the deck to clean all the lead lines they retrieved during the day so that it could be recycled. Now, that’s dedication…