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Archive for April 2012

Dead baby seal raises questions about efforts to address lost fishing gear in the U.S.

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On April 8, 2012 the Seattle Times ran an article titled Lost fishing gear becoming big threat to Puget Sound marine life highlighting the recent discovery of the dead body of a seal pup entangled in lost fishing gear.

Seal pup named Sandy

A Seattle Times article highlights a "Seal pup is rescued and rehabilitated only to later drown when entangled in derelict fishing gear in Puget Sound, WA" but fails to look deeper at the bigger questions about how we are doing with cleaning up these persistent threats to marine mammals, fish, birds and even divers. (photo - Seattle Times)

“The death of a rescued seal pup, trapped in an underwater tangle of fishing line, shows the deadly toll of lost fishing gear. Old fishing nets, crab pots, lines and hooks ensnare and kill more than half a million sea creatures in Puget Sound every year, according to the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative” the Seattle Times article states, followed by a sad story of a seal pup which was rescued, rehabilitated by the Progressive Animal Welfare Society’s Wildlife Center for five months, and then returned to the wild only to drown when entangled in lost fishing gear.

While startling to see any marine mammal senselessly lost not to a natural predator, but from human’s impacts on the marine environment, perhaps equally disturbing is what is not covered in the article – the bigger picture view of the problem of derelict fishing gear in the United States and waning efforts to address legacy gear – the persistent monofilament lines in the water – in particular.

What’s not in the news article:

  • The dramatic reduction in federal funding, and accordingly the level of effort, removing new or legacy derelict fishing gear in Puget Sound
  • The inherent difficulties in maintaining a long-term cleanup effort when most funding sources are geared toward pilot project projects or demonstration projects (the Northwest Straits Commission has done a great job, but if they have serious challenges maintaining a program even given their tremendous successes, how will other regions do in the long run?)
  • The unknown factor of how much derelict fishing gear lies below 100 feet, the diver depth cut off for this type of work due to OSHA restrictions (unless you are the military, who came to remove a few nets a few years ago as they are not affected by OSHA regs – they did those dives as training missions)
  • The harm that volunteers have put themselves in working at depths where “volunteering” was the only way to get around OSHA regs (as one theory goes that volunteers are not subject to OSHA regs as they don’t accept pay for their dives – a legal premise that has never been run to ground) on projects identified by the SeaDoc Society mentioned in the article who asked for federal help, but none came when a squid seiner sank with her nets deployed (luckily no one has been injured on that net recovery project but it is one heck of a scary cleanup)
  •  The lack of federal guidelines to address this type of diving (a workshop was held bringing multiple state, federal and tribal agencies together but there was no follow-up or transfer of procedures or policies between groups)
  •  A serious look at where “scientific diving” ends and “working diver” circumstances, and required training, begins and the related implications on derelict fishing gear cleanup programs

The issues surrounding cleaning up derelict fishing gear are numerous, the expertise is thin, and some of the best folks who worked on the topic have had to move on to other work due to funding limitations – a tragic brain-drain for the field.

Ghost fishing gear’s impacts are serious – and have been quantified in some instances (although the numbers are possibly lower than reality as the mortality and evidence of the mortality occurs so quickly), and while efforts to stop the introduction of new fishing nets has made some headway (disposal dumpsters at some docks, nets-to-energy projects at some others) I know of no national, or even regional plan to address legacy derelict nets comprehensively in the U.S.

Puget Sound, largely through the good work of the Northwest Straits Commission, comes as close as any to seriously working a cleanup plan, but as the article shows through the death of one high-profile seal, even Puget Sound isn’t safe for fish, waterfowl (there’s a big bird impact from lost monofilament nets too) and marine mammals.

Looking at reductions in the level of effort for derelict fishing net removal in two regions in the U.S. where the threat from nets is already well understood – Puget Sound and the Northwest Hawaiian Islands  – it appears that lost fishing gear recovery as a national priority has slipped over the past several years, even though it appears listed as a priority in government documents.

It is welcome news that the media hasn’t forgotten about the problem, but it is sad that it took the loss of another seal pup to get people’s attention.

The author is a scientist by training and the owner of W.H. Nuckols Consulting, an environmental policy, government relations and strategic communications firm in Washington, DC.
A bio for Mr. Nuckols is located at www.WilliamHNuckols.com

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