Friday, June 21, 2002, 12:00 a.m. Pacific

Permission to reprint or copy this article/photo must be obtained from The Seattle Times. Call 206-464-3113 or e-mail with your request.

'Ghost nets' haunt waters: Divers gingerly remove abandoned fishing gear that endangers marine life

By Eran Karmon
Seattle Times staff reporter

REID HARBOR, San Juan County — As killer whales breached nearby and curious seals checked out the underwater work crew, teams of divers yesterday bundled up and brought to the surface a 300- to 400-foot chunk of fishing net that had been snagged on an underwater pinnacle just south of Stuart Island since sometime last fall.

The abandoned purse seine — a "ghost net," as divers call them — continued trapping and killing lingcod and rockfish, rare long box crabs, and it definitely was a hazard for recreational divers.

It was "waving around like giant bedsheets on a clothesline," said Doug Williams, a master senior diver with the state Department of Natural Resources, who led the cleanup.

These killer ghosts skulk the inland waters of Washington.

Lost and abandoned fishing nets, crab pots and monofilament line lurking in the depths can mean catastrophe for marine life. Fish, crustaceans, sea birds and marine mammals die after becoming entangled in lost or abandoned commercial and recreational gear.

The dead animals attract predators and scavengers who then perish. In this manner, "a derelict fishing net can fish for decades," Williams said.

"These things are killing fields," said Gary Wood, executive director of Island County's marine-resource committee. "If they were terrestrial, that's what we'd call them. The reason there isn't a big hubbub is because they're underwater, so we don't see them."

Yesterday's cleanup was the kickoff to a pilot project that aims to remove 12 tons of ghost nets from Puget Sound and the state's northern waters this year. Sponsors also hope to create a database of lost fishing gear for future removal, as well as a protocol for safe removal of the aquatic refuse.

The net plucked out yesterday was discovered by DNR divers who were training in the area two months ago. Since then, they returned to take detailed video of the tangled mass and to draw up a game plan for its safe removal.

On Wednesday, three teams of two divers each spent six hours tying the fluttering net into manageable bales.

Yesterday afternoon, they attached three orange and yellow inflatable float bags to the plastic mass, pulling it away from the underwater cliff it was draped over and bringing it within feet of the surface.

"It kind of looked like a big Chinese dragon," said Greg Bash, one of the divers who wrestled with the lost net.

A purse seiner and crew donated by a commercial fisher then hauled the net aboard and carried it to Anacortes. Skagit County volunteered to dispose of the net for free.

The divers could only clear sections of the net above the depth of 100 feet because safe diving practice prohibited them from diving deeper without a shipboard decompression chamber.

They don't know how much netting still drifts in the depths; as much as 1,000 feet may have been left behind. But yesterday's effort cleared the shallow zone used by most marine life.

The problem of ghost nets extends far beyond Washington. Predominant Pacific currents push huge amounts of derelict fishing gear toward the northwestern islands of Hawaii.

The gear is a major threat to the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. Curious pups explore the mesmerizing clouds of plastic, and they often get tangled and drown.

Last year, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) crews removed 60 tons of derelict gear from the seals' home waters, but more than 100 tons remain.

North Atlantic right whales — at an estimated population of 300, it's the world's rarest whale species — have drowned after getting entangled by derelict nets near Cape Cod, Mass.

And in the waters off Japan, where a three-year cleanup effort is now under way, an estimated 300,000 to 500,000 octopus die in ghost nets every year, a number equal to that country's annual commercial octopus harvest.

Lost fishing gear is also a hazard for divers. On Earth Day 1998, experienced recreational diver Meghan Reeling was helping clean up the area around Les Davis Pier in Tacoma. The 42-year-old Tillicum woman drowned after she became entangled in discarded fishing line, even though she carried a knife.

Two of the divers involved in yesterday's cleanup were snared in the net but were quickly cut loose. The dive team uses a strict "buddy-system" protocol, with a safety diver watching each diver who's working near the net.

"It gives you just a little moment of 'Oh no,' " said Williams, one of the pair that got tangled.

The giant piece of gear removed yesterday is only the tip of the iceberg.

"There is literally hundreds of tons of derelict fishing gear in Puget Sound," said Tom Cowan, director of the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative.

NW Straits is a citizens commission authorized by Congress in 1999 to help protect and conserve Puget Sound habitat and fisheries. The organization received a $75,000 NOAA grant to develop a set of procedural and safety protocols for removing derelict gear.

There have been off and on efforts to clear Puget Sound of deadly debris, but in part because no system for doing so safely exists, they haven't been sustained. Cowan hopes the protocol and database will encourage corporate sponsors, foundations and marine-conservation groups to take up the cause of ridding the Sound of derelict nets.

"We feel confident that as people become more aware of the problem, and with a protocol for safe removal and disposal, this will present a very attractive package for future funders," he said.

Fishers are encouraged to report gear lost at sea to the Department of Fish and Wildlife without fear of liability or prosecution.

"For gear lost during a legal commercial fishing operation, it is unlikely someone will be charged," said Evan Jacoby, internal legal counsel for Fish and Wildlife. "But if someone is out there fishing illegally and sees a patrol boat coming and cuts the gear loose, and we figure that out, then that's something completely different."

As Joe Schmitt, chairman of Clallam County's marine-resource committee, sees it, "commercial fishing is a necessity. But cleaning up your mess is also a necessity."

Eran Karmon: 206-464-2155 or

Copyright © 2002 The Seattle Times Company