Some search the ocean floor for shipwrecks and sunken treasure. Others, like The Nature Conservancy’s Eric Delvin, are just looking for old nets.
As it turns out, old fishing nets lurk below Washington’s waters, tangled on underwater rocks or reefs, and they pose a hidden danger to marine animals. Since fishing is an essential part of Washington’s communities, cultures and livelihoods, you can imagine the number of nets lost over time. The abandoned nets, called “ghost nets,” do the same job on the sea floor that they do when used for fishing: they catch fish, and many other animals including seals, octopus, salmon and even birds. These nets take hundreds of years to decompose, turning the floors of our most beloved waters into graveyards.
This is one conservation problem with a simple solution – to locate and remove the nets – and that’s just what the Conservancy and partners are doing.
This work started back in 2002 when the Northwest Straits Initiative created the Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Program in Puget Sound. Over the past nine years, they’ve removed more than 4,000 fishing nets. Sadly, over 230,000 dead animals were found entangled in the gear. The group estimates that 500 nets still linger in the shallow waters of Puget Sound, killing more than 500,000 animals each year. Jeff June, of the Northwest Straits Initiative, says the group’s goal is to rid Puget Sound of ghost nets, and to expand the program to other waters in Washington and beyond.
The Nature Conservancy is helping to realize that vision. The Conservancy and the Quinault Indian Nation have started the first net retrieval project on the Washington coast, focusing efforts on the Chehalis and Quinault Rivers.
Delvin, the community conservation coordinator for the Conservancy, led the pilot phase of the Grays Harbor Derelict Gear Removal Project in September. Guided by Mr. June and folks from the Northwest Straits Initiative, crews located and removed 25 nets in five days along two miles of the Chehalis River, a prime fishing spot for salmon and sturgeon. This was the start of the first comprehensive derelict gear removal project in a river setting.
In the next phase of the project, the team will use a side-scan sonar, which can scan the entire watery river bottom picking up images of ghost nets. The Conservancy and the Quinault Nation are also developing a net recovery program, so tribal members can easily report lost or found nets on the coast.
Perhaps the best news came at a recent coastal summit where fishing interests, conservation groups, interested citizens, city officials, tribes and others gathered to identify the best marine restoration projects to work on collaboratively. Removing old fishing nets along the entire coast took top priority and will expand significantly in future years.
This project is all about pooling expertise and resources for greater conservation outcomes. The Conservancy and the Quinault Indian Nation worked with many partners to get the job done. “This is an exciting project for The Nature Conservancy because it demonstrates the power of partnerships working towards a shared vision that will initially help protect Grays Harbor, and ultimately the entire Washington Coast,” Delvin said. The Northwest Straits Initiative will continue to provide expertise from their success in Puget Sound. “I’ve looked forward to working with The Nature Conservancy for a long time and this project is such a natural fit – the more nets we collect, the greater impact we can have to create clean marine habitat across Washington,” June said.
Your support can help us locate and remove more ghost nets in Washington’s waters.
The following organizations partnered with The Nature Conservancy and the Quinault Indian Nation to make net retrieval possible on the Washington coast:
Washington Department of Natural Resources
Quinault Indian Nation
Grays Harbor Marine Resources Committee
Northwest Straits Initiative
Jocelyn Ellis Abood works as a content strategy manager for The Nature Conservancy.