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Conservation program nets lost fishing gear

KINGSTON — Below the surface of Puget Sound, hundreds of abandoned fish nets are still reaping a harvest.

Gill nets and crab pots lost by commerical fish boats and weekend warriors collect on the seafloor and snag fish, mammals and can trap invertebrates for decades.

This derelict fishing gear is the target of the Northwest Straits Commission, a federally funded program intent on hauling up 90 percent of abandoned gear from Puget Sound by the end of 2012.

The commission shifted three of its four recovery boats from the San Juan Islands to North Kitsap this week. Divers were scheduled to pull up a net off Apple Tree Cove in Kingston, Thursday.

A 2007 study by the commission estimated that there are more than 500 derelict nets left in central Puget Sound and 187 in Hood Canal. Derelict Gear Removal Project Manager Tom Cowan said in the Hood Canal, the initiative has the opportunity to aid a broader effort to restore habitat.

“If we can get some of the nets out of there, that’s just one more factor that would help improve the health of Hood Canal,” he said.

Northwest Straits crews have already removed 311 acres of fish net from northwest Washington waters. They found 62,800 marine animals caught in the nets, including 650 birds and 32 mammals.

The crews have also retrieved 1,921 crab pots. Each pot can trap up to 75 crabs in a year, according to the commission.

The commission has focused its removal work on particular areas of Puget Sound based on seafloor surveys and reports from commerical and recrecreational fishermen.

Its studies have shown that the bulk of abandoned fishing gear is in North Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands, where gill netting is more common and craggy seabeds snag more nets.

On removal expeditions, divers untangle the fish net by hand, bundle it and float it to the surface using air bags. Once the net is onboard, a biologist inspects and records entangled sea life.

A dive crew can remove roughly four nets per day, at a cost of $4,000.

Some of the nets removed are decades old, since long-lasting synthetic fishing gear was introduced in the 1950s.

Beyond gear removal, the commission has been educating commercial and recreational fishers on safer fishing practices.

It also encourages mariners and recreational divers to report derelict fishing gear they spot to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, which plots the reports and shares the information with the commission.

On Thursday, a Northwest Straits boat hosted state Rep. Christine Rolfes and County Commissioner Steve Bauer on a net removal expedition.

Rolfes, D-Bainbridge Island, was excited by the potential of the project.

“The money they spent made really a long term difference in the San Juans,” Rolfes said. “It’s really heartening to see they could be able to remove 50 or 70 years of debris from Puget Sound.”

Lost fishing gear, including nets and pots, can be reported to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fish/derelict/derelict_gear.htm or by calling 1-877-933-9847.

Find more information on the Derelict Fishing Gear Program at www.derelictgear.org.

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