In 2002, the Washington state legislature passed SB 6313, establishing the Derelict Fishing gear removal program in Puget Sound. Since that time, the Initiative’s derelict gear program has become an internationally-recognized success story. A good deal of our success in removing derelict gear from Puget Sound is due to a careful, strategic approach to program development. To learn more about the background and components of the Derelict Fishing Gear Program, explore the links below.
"No Fault” Approach
Removing Derelict Gear
Preventing Derelict Gear
In 1999, the Northwest Straits Commission held a workshop for managers and scientists to discuss gaps in marine research and action for Puget Sound. Workshop participants identified the need to better understand the relationship between derelict fishing gear and declining marine species in Puget Sound. Subsequent discussions with agencies, tribes, and fishermen confirmed the need and the Commission received its first grant for a pilot derelict gear removal project in 2001.
With this seed money, the Commission worked with state agencies and local organizations to develop diver training protocols and identify priorities for gear removal activities. Building on this, in 2002 the Washington State Legislature passed SB 6313 to establish the components of a derelict fishing gear program in Puget Sound. The legislation called for the development of a database, protocols for removal and disposal, and an evaluation of methods to reduce further losses. The Commission encouraged the legislature to remove any penalties associated with the reporting of lost gear, as well as allow removal of gear without any required permits if the removal guidelines spelled out in the bill were followed.
Following passage of the legislation, the Commission developed an internet and toll free derelict gear reporting system to be maintained by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW), a database for recording information about derelict gear, and an outreach program to encourage reporting lost gear. The protocols, reporting system, database, and outreach programs were tested in a 2002 pilot project that succeeded in providing an infrastructure for derelict gear reporting and removal in Puget Sound.
Later that same year, the Commission, WDFW and eight other federal and state agencies adopted the State of Washington’s Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Guidelines. The guidelines provide a “framework for the safe and environmentally sensitive removal and proper disposal of derelict fishing gear”. They also identify and define the many types of derelict fishing gear, environmental issues, required components of a removal and disposal plan, acceptable removal methods, disposal considerations and types of record keeping and reporting data expected. These guidelines set the stage for ongoing gear removals in Puget Sound.
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Central to the success of the derelict gear program has been its grassroots nature and partnerships with commercial and recreational fishermen to locate and remove gear. The Commission takes a no-fault approach to derelict gear removal. Rather than assigning blame for the derelict gear in the marine environment, the Commission focuses on removing existing gear and preventing new gear from entering the water through non-regulatory means. This approach is based on the following assumptions:
• That the majority of the derelict fishing gear in Washington state waters is local or regional in origin;
• That the majority of fishermen are operating legally in Washington state waters;
• That fishermen do not want to lose expensive gear;
• That if they do lose gear it is for reasons outside of their control;
• That fishermen have a stake in recovery of lost gear that might otherwise impact the sustainability of their industry.
The no-fault approach encourages fishermen to report lost nets and pots so that they can be removed quickly.
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Safety is the first concern of the Derelict Gear Program—safety both to the divers and others that use Puget Sound. The Northwest Straits Initiative has made significant progress without a single major safety incident. Highly-skilled commercial divers do this dangerous work and follow safety, removal and disposal protocols that we designed in partnership with the Department of Natural Resources and other state and federal agencies.
Locating Derelict Gear
Derelict fishing gear is located through both fishermen and citizen reports and directed surveys.
In Puget Sound, lost gear is reported directly to the Northwest Straits Commission under the “no-fault” reporting process. WDFW enforcement agents and scientists report derelict fishing gear found during their normal operations. Boaters, sport fishermen, divers and beach goers also find and report derelict fishing gear to the Northwest Straits Commission. Reports are logged into a comprehensive database that is managed and maintained by the Northwest Straits Commission and are prioritized for removal based on criteria developed during our prioritization process.
The Northwest Straits Commission also locates derelict gear during directed gear surveys. These surveys typically occur in areas of high commercial or sport fishing effort. Initially, side-scan sonar was used effectively for locating derelict crab, but not for locating derelict nets. Net surveys used towed underwater cameras and the expertise of trained divers.
However, a high resolution side-scan sonar survey technique, recently developed by our sonar technician, Crayton Fenn, has literally revolutionized the surveying for derelict nets, providing for much higher accuracy and the ability to survey many more miles per day than under the old technique.
Nir Barnea, NOAA's Marine Debris Program West Coast Coordinator, is impressed with the new method, noting that "the side scan sonar surveys cover a much larger area compared to diver and camera surveys and we get a higher degree of confidence that all nets and potential net entanglement features have been mapped."
The new high-resolution side-scan sonar will be available for finding derelict nets throughout the nation’s coastal waters and will have research uses beyond finding nets. In regards to Puget Sound, the good news is that this is a most effective survey tool for finding lost nets. The bad news is that we are finding many more lost nets than were predicted under the less accurate camera drop surveys.
Many miles of the seabed in Puget Sound have been surveyed for derelict gear and all high-priority areas for derelict nets will have been surveyed by December of 2010. More often than not, more nets are found in layers entangled on a rock or pinnacle than were identified in the original survey, which is one reason we have removed far more nets than were indicated in the survey.
Typical removal operations usually entails a removal vessel with a captain, deckhand, two to four trained divers and a biologist. Divers use surface-supplied air, bailout bottles and a two-way voice communication system. One diver removes the gear while a second fully-suited diver stands by as a safety backup and a dive supervisor monitors all aspects of the dive operation. Prior to removal operations, the work diver surveys the length of the net and reports entangled animals, notes impacts of the net on the habitat and provides estimates of the size of the net and the amount and type of habitat impacted.
Divers carefully remove nets by hand, avoiding habitat disturbance. If necessary, the diver will cut the net loose where it is buried or encrusted rather than forcibly ripping the net away from fragile habitat. Once the net is freed and bundled, a strap and airlift bag is attached and it is floated to the surface where it is winched onto the vessel. The onboard biologist further inspects the gear for entangled animals and records this information along with the information reported by the work diver. Living and dead animals are returned to the sea, except when kept for further identification.
If derelict crab pots are being removed, a computer program uses the sidescan sonar survey data to analyze the distribution of the derelict pots and suggests the most efficient removal pattern. A digital charting system guides the vessel to the exact location of the derelict pot and a clump weight, line and surface buoy are deployed at the location. A diver using surface-supplied air or scuba is deployed and follows the line from the surface float to the weight on the seabed and usually locates the pot within 10 to 15 ft of the clump weight location. The diver assesses the condition of the pot and follows the state-adopted guidelines to decide whether to remove the pot or disable it in place. Pots more than half buried in the seabed are typically disabled and left in place. The diver also counts and identifies the number of animals entrapped in the pot and notes any impact on the habitat such as inhibited eelgrass growth. The diver hooks a recovery line to the pot and either floats it to the surface with a lift bag or passes the line to the vessel crew that lifts the pot by hand off the seabed and then to the vessel by hand or hydraulic pot hauler.
Once onboard the vessel, the pot is inspected for the use of escape cord, identified as either a sport or commercial pot and inspected for personal identification tags. All organisms in the pot are identified, counted, recorded as dead or alive, and for Dungeness crabs, the sex is determined. All of the information is recorded on data forms and notes about the condition of the pot are recorded in the electronic chart system, i.e., removed, disabled or remaining, etc. Pots are cleaned of as much vegetation and sessile animals as possible and stored on deck. The biologist typically oversees the removal operation, assures the guidelines are being followed and records the data.
While losing gear is a part of fishing, the Northwest Straits Initiative is working on several projects to educate commercial and recreational fishermen about practices to minimize new derelict gear and its impacts. Net fisheries have declined considerably from historic levels in Puget Sound so that new derelict nets are much less frequent, but the recreational and commercial Dungeness crab fishery is alive and well. It is estimated that 12,000 crab pots are lost every year in Puget Sound. Because of this, the Initiative’s prevention efforts have focused on derelict pots.
Tribal Gear Loss Forum—In 2008, the Northwest Straits Initiative held a forum for tribal fishermen and commercial marine operators to explore ways to minimize lost crab pots due to ship strikes. Crab pots and marine traffic are a bad combination and thousands of pots are lost each year as a result of gear/vessel interactions. The gear loss forum generated new dialog on this subject and marine vessel operators and fishermen both are looking into policies to minimize future lost gear.
Crabber Education and Outreach—The Northwest Straits Foundation partnered with WSU Beach Watchers and the Snohomish MRC to implement an education and outreach project focused on recreational crabbers. Beach Watchers provide crabbers with information about the need to use biodegradable escape cord in their crab pots. This ‘escape’ cord disintegrates over time in salt water and eventually disables a crab pot that is lost. Beach Watchers also provided crabbers with lengths of escape cord sufficient to retrofit their pots. They are also providing other education and materials about how to prevent losing pots. Outreach occurred at popular boat launches throughout the Northwest Straits. This project was funded in part by a National Fish and Wildlife/NOAA Marine Debris Prevention and Removal grant.
In 2008, the Northwest Straits Foundation completed a project to identify and rank priority areas for derelict gear removal throughout Puget Sound and to estimate the cost of removing most of that gear from high priority areas. Prioritization helps us to target limited funds to remove the most dangerous types of gear from the most sensitive areas. Click here to read the report.
Because of their long term and indiscriminate lethality and the risks they pose to humans as well as marine life, gillnets are prioritized first for removal. High priority areas with many nets were identified in North Puget Sound and the San Juan archipelago. Additional nets also remain in the lower priority areas of central and south Puget Sound and Hood Canal.
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