By: Nir Barnea
On September 8th, at Alki Beach in Seattle, people will gather for the Seal Sitters-organized event to celebrate the “year of the seal,” and for a sculpture dedication, depicting a seal mom and pup. Seattle Mayor, Mike McGinn, proclaimed the date as “Harbor Seal Day.” NOAA will participate in the event providing educational material on marine debris.
Thinking about the event, I found myself trying to imagine what it is like to be a seal in the Puget Sound in the 21st century. No doubt, it must be very challenging. For thousands of years, seals have lived in a slowly evolving environment, gradually adapting to survive. In the last 150 years however, the environment has changed drastically, and seals find themselves dealing with threats never experienced before.
To start with, boats, big and small, as well as nearby industrial plants increase noise and interfere with wildlife communication in Puget Sound. Large navigation buoys in the area are nice hang-out spots for seals, but boat traffic all around is a major safety hazard to seals. Man-made chemicals, some toxic to seals and other marine animals, are now part of the environment, coming both from point source pollution and from non-point pollution, such as oil-runoff from highways and driveways that reaches the Puget Sound through storms drains.
And then, there is the impact of marine debris on seals. The story of Sandy, a harbor seal pup, rescued, rehabilitated, and then released by PAWS only to be found dead, entangled in a fishing line, is well-known, but sadly, not unique. Marine debris, and especially derelict fishing gear, injures and kills thousands of marine animals every year. Only a small fraction is reported or found during marine debris cleanup operations. But, there is some good news — marine debris is to a large degree solvable by the ones who created it – humans.
For more than 10 years, efforts have been on-going in the Puget Sound to remove derelict fishing gear, especially derelict nets, most of which were lost long ago during the height of the salmon fishing operations. The Northwest Strait Initiative, supported by state agencies, NOAA, and many others, has removed nearly 4,500 derelict fishing nets from the Puget Sound, and is working hard to remove all known remaining nets from shallow water (less than 100 feet). The Stillaguamish Tribe of Indians, Nisqually Indian Tribe, and other tribes have removed derelict nets and crab pots from the Puget Sound, and have programs in place to report lost fishing gear.
In the end, however, it all comes back to us, and boils down to personal responsibility. And there is much each one of us can do.
- Report derelict fishing gear. By phone: 1-855-542-3935 or online http://www.derelictgeardb.org/reportgear.aspx. It is now the law in Washington state to report lost fishing nets within 24 hours.
- Fish responsibly. Fish only in approved areas, being careful not to lose nets and crab pots, and use rot cords in all crab pots. Recycle or properly dispose of fishing line and damaged gear.
- Be an advocate. Educated yourself, your family, and friends on marine debris impact and prevention, and participate in cleanup efforts.
- Report marine mammal stranding. If you see a stranded marine mammal, call the NOAA Hotline: 1-800-853-1964.