The day is misty and the leaves are the fading dingy greens, oranges and browns of decay.
Two small fishing boats launch into the morning fog off Friend’s Landing near Montesano and head for the aptly named Research, a research vessel on the Chehalis River, where the crew hunts for danger lurking beneath the water.
Welcome to the pursuit of “ghosts” that eat marine life, ensnaring them into a treacherous web of filament or linen, leaving the treasure to rot away, over and over again. Ghost nets is the colorful term for nets and other fishing gear that has been lost or discarded. It can choke the life out of marine habitat and kills thousands of marine animals a year, partners on the removal project estimate.
The fishing gear has been lost by commercial or recreational fishermen, mostly by accident, due to storm, flood, entanglement or vandalism. The “ghosts” then haunt the lives of fish, shellfish and birds who make up the marine world.
Often gillnets are found, surrounded by lead weights and line, cork and plastic buoys. “It also destroys and degrades habitat and blocks access to habitat used for feeding and escaping,” says a Nature Conservancy flier.
Low tide during the low water times of the spring and early summer is the best time to do the work “safely and effectively,” Joe Schumacker writes in an email. He is the marine resources scientist for the Quinault Indian Nation, which initiated the project.
The joint effort by the Quinault, federal, state and local public and private groups has helped “make a significant impact” in cleaning up the nets and fishing gear “which has been very satisfying,” he says.
The crew on the research boat, operated by Fenn Enterprises, knows where these ghosts lurk because of the operators of the two small boats — John Campbell and Joe Durham. As part of a group of volunteers from the Coastal Conservation Association, they scoured the Chehalis River, usually early in the morning in June or early July, when the tide is extremely low and the gear is visible and can be recorded with GPS coordinates for future recovery and removal.
A chartreuse float bag rises to the surface as the river roils from the underwater air hose of the diver Eric Hazelton who is in a dry suit below, removing an entangled net spotted earlier.
Attached to the balloon is one more in a series of some 248 nets dislodged and removed in the four-year seasonal effort to free area rivers and the Grays Harbor estuary of derelict fishing gear.
The $300,000 project was initiated in 2010 by the Quinault tribe, which was joined by several other entities, including the Nature Conservancy, Eric Delvin community conservation coordinator said. The National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration “stepped up” with $100,000, said Schumacker. The tribe and conservancy put in $50,000 each. Other funding was provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which chipped in $80,000. Funding was also provided by the Grays Harbor County Marine Resource Committee, state Departments of Fish and Wildlife and Natural Resources, the Northwest Straits Foundation, National Resource Consultants and the Pacific Marine and Estuarine Fish Habitat Partnership. Members of the Coastal Conservation Association and the marine committee also contributed volunteer hours.
The Team at Work
A sizable net, some 60 by 20 feet is attached to the float. It has been suspended about 10 feet above the river bottom and is the second of two removed this foggy morning.
Paul Rudell, a fish biologist for Natural Resources Consultants, is pleased to see the remains of a sturgeon entangled in the net. The remains will be sent back with field project manager Kyle Antonelis to be part of a study on how quickly marine life deteriorates in the nets, and to determine whether it is a green or white sturgeon. Green sturgeon are listed as protected on the Endangered Species list.
The removals on the Chehalis and in Grays Harbor estuary have been more high tech. Nets are spotted, GPS is recorded and then side-scan sonar is used to further hone in on the location of the fishing gear. Then a diver is sent down to free the nets and gear. Some 98 of the 248 nets were recovered this way. Derelict nets are also easier to find and retrieve on the Quinault River where 150 were removed. Recovery was performed “entirely by sight and hand. Side-scan is impractical in that much smaller river,” writes Schumacker.
No dead organisms were found in Quinault nets. On the Chehalis, nine dead white sturgeon and three green sturgeon were found before this day’s as yet unclassified sturgeon was added to the list. One dead bird, a cormorant, was also found. Because deterioration occurs so quickly, it is difficult to tell how many marine lives are actually lost. An estimated thousands of marine animals die in the nets, based on numbers extrapolated from previous net recovery efforts on Puget Sound, project managers said.
About 130 derelict crab pots were also recovered in local waters. Though it is rare, any nets or equipment that is intact and has identification is returned to the owner, project members said.
Rudell proudly reports the recovery and release of two live Dungeness crabs on a recent mission. As Rudell records the information in a log, Levi Capoeman of the Quinault Nation lends a hand wherever needed aboard the research vessel, clearing the net and cutting it up, tucking a small, sharp knife into a sheath in his life jacket.
The advantage to using a diver “is we know we are getting the whole net,” says Delvin to reporters capturing the action sitting atop two milk crates on Durham’s 12-foot fishing boat anchored alongside the research vessel.
Good humor abounds between boats, even as Capt. Bryan DeLong and other crew members monitor communications and air pumping into diver Hazelton’s suit, and owner and Captain Crayton Fenn supervises.
Rudell jokes that Antonelis will have to endure the smelly fish body in his car before he can send it for testing. De Long offers potato chips laced with jalapeno to block the smell receptors in his nose.
Evidence is sent to the lab, lead, buoys, and anything that can be salvaged or recycled is saved. Logs and organic material is tossed back in.
How to call ghost net busters
Schumacker plans to meet with tribal fishers between now and the end of October to “discuss and approve reporting methods to limit future net losses and facilitate recovery.”
Funding will be sought for ongoing efforts.
A new law, passed in 2012, requires all commercial non-treaty fishers statewide to report lost commercial net gear, Antonelis reports. The aim is about recovery and good practices, not enforcement, Delvin says.The state fish and wildlife hotline is (1-800-542-3935). The online reporting system is managed by the Northwest Straits Foundation at (www.derelictgear.org).