By: Nir Barnea
From rolling sand dunes to sheer cliffs, the coastline of Oregon and Washington is spectacular and beautiful. But look closer and you will find pollution on the beaches that affects the world over: marine debris. Left in place, marine debris may harm habitats, entangle wildlife, and impact tourism. Who wants to vacation on a dirty beach?
Oregon and Washington work hard to clean up the beaches. In Oregon, state agencies have teamed up with SOLVE, Sea Grant, and non-governmental organizations to clean up the coast. In Washington, CoastSavers and other organizations also conduct cleanups along the entire coast. In both states, it is determined and dedicated volunteers doing the removal work, and over the years, they have cleaned up hundreds of tons of marine debris.
Derelict fishing gear, however, poses the greatest marine debris challenge to both states. Every year, over 200,000 commercial crab pots are deployed along the outer coast of Oregon and Washington, and many more pots are used in Washington’s Puget Sound. Recreational crab pots are used as well, in some places in numbers exceeding commercial pots. It is estimated that up to 10 percent of the crab pots deployed are lost every year because of winter storms, vessel traffic, or poor fishing practices. Fishing nets and fishing lines, some lost locally and others drifting in from fishing grounds far away, add to the problem.
Derelict fishing gear has multiple impacts. Derelict nets may indiscriminately catch and entangle anything coming their way, including crustacean, fish, birds, and mammals. Derelict nets can smother and scour the seafloor they land on or move across, are a hazard to navigation, and pose a safety risk to divers. Derelict crab pots continue to trap crabs in what is known as ghost fishing, abrade the habitat they sit on or move across (winter storms may move lost pots many miles along the outer coast), entangle marine mammals, and cause gear conflict with other fisheries.
Both states have seen remarkable progress in efforts to address marine debris. Along the outer coast and in the Puget Sound, numerous non-governmental organizations, with state, federal, and sponsors support, and with the help of thousands of dedicated volunteers, conduct extensive cleanups, removing hundreds of tons of marine debris over the years, as well as conducting outreach efforts to school and adults alike.
Both states have invested considerable efforts to address derelict fishing gear. In Oregon, the state partnered with NOAA and the Dungeness crab fishing industry, and with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, removed over 3,000 pots along the entire coast, recycling the vast majority of them. In Washington, a number of projects were executed to remove derelict crab pots, and recently the state passed regulations to enable crab fishermen to apply for a permit to remove derelict crab pots in the off season and keep them. Oregon is considering similar regulations.
In the Puget Sound, survey and removal of legacy nets, lost mostly during the post-World War II heyday of salmon fishing in the Puget Sound, has been on-going for years. The state, Northwest Straits Initiative, NOAA, American Indian tribes, and industry collaborated to remove over 4,350 nets to date. It is estimated that less than 200 nets remained in shallow waters with more in deep water (deeper than 100 feet), where removal by divers is difficult and costly.
The progress made so far is impressive, but much more remains to be done. From the general effort by the public to reduce, reuse, recycle, to industry efforts to address sources of marine debris, to curbing littering, to better fishing practices and prompt reporting of lost nets (it is now the law in Washington state), the efforts will require both action and a change of heart and mind to bring the action about through education and outreach. Oregon and Washington are fortunate to have in place the framework and the collaboration of government agencies, NGO, industry, and the most important partner – the public – to get it done.