Northwest Straits Derelict Fishing Gear Program

Northwest Straits Foundation

Northwest Straits Foundation

The problem

Commercial fishermen throughout the United States deploy thousands of crab pots and nets in the oceans and coastal waters every year. All too often this valuable fishing gear is lost due to snagging, storms and breakages. Once lost, the fishing gear is difficult and expensive to retrieve. It becomes an environmental hazard 'ghost' fishing valuable species, especially crabs and other important non-target species such as sea turtles.  

The solution

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. As a direct result of the workshop, in 2002 the Washington State Legislature passed SB 6313 to establish the components of a derelict fishing gear programme 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 specified in the bill were followed. The protocols, reporting system, database, and outreach programmes 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, Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (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.

The outcomes 

Since those early days, the programme has gone from strength to strength with derelict fishing gear being constantly located through both fishermen and citizen reports and directed surveys. In 2012, Northwest Straits Foundation (NWSF) launched the Reporting, Response, and Retrieval Program to allow reporting and retrieval lost nets before they become derelict. This program prevents both the immediate impacts of lost fishing nets and the long-term impacts associated with the accumulation of harmful fishing gear over time. Management of the programme has migrated to the Northwest Straits Foundation, a nonprofit corporate partner of the Northwest Straits Commission. In Puget Sound, lost gear is reported directly to the Northwest Straits Foundation 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 Foundation. In an innovative development, the use of high resolution side scan sonar has revolutionized surveying for derelict nets. It provides much higher accuracy and the ability to survey many more miles per day than under the old techniques of towed underwater cameras and divers.

In 2016 NWSF launched the “Catch More Crab” campaign, a recreational crabber outreach campaign aimed at reducing the number of crab pots lost by recreational crabbers each year. This campaign has reached over 300,000 individuals annually and includes instructional videos, workshops, and informational packets and posters distributed throughout the Puget Sound and Northwest Straits region.

The efforts of the many Northwest Straits Derelict Fishing Gear Program partners have achieved outstanding results. Since the project commenced, over 5,700 derelict fishing nets, 5,400 crab pots and 54 shrimp pots have been removed from Puget Sound, restoring 870 acres of important marine habitat. More than 460,000 animals representing more than 270 unique species were found entangled in this gear. These included porpoises, seals, sea lions, scoters, grebes, cormorants, Chinook salmon and Dungeness crab. Indeed it is estimated that fewer than 500 derelict fishing nets remain in the shallow waters of Puget Sound but these are still creating problems and warrant the continued efforts of the partners.

Since the project commenced, over 5,700 derelict fishing nets, 5,400 crab pots and 54 shrimp pots have been removed from Puget Sound, restoring 870 acres of important marine habitat. More than 460,000 animals representing more than 270 unique species were found entangled in this gear.

The lessons

The success of the Northwest Straits Derelict Fishing Gear Program has been built on collaboration and strong industry, government and community partnerships. Key partners in these programs include Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NOAA Marine Debris Program, Puget Sound Treaty Tribes, the seven county-based Marine Resources Committees boarding the marine waters of the Northwest Straits region. Government leadership and funding resulting in the 2002 legislation together with the derelict fishing gear removal guidelines provided a strong foundation and legitimacy for the ensuing action programmes. Another key lesson was the encouragement given for self-reporting of gear loss under the 'no fault' provisions.

Identifying and prioritising areas for derelict gear removal throughout Puget Sound has allowed better targeting of limited funds to remove the most dangerous types of gear from the most sensitive areas.

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