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Fishing for the ghost nets of Whatcom County

Photo by Bellamy Pailthorp
Dead crabs and live sea stars are among the creatures pulled up with derelict fishing gear collected by the Northwest Straits Initiative in Puget Sound, here on a boat at Alden Bank, off the coast of Ferndale.The coalition has mapped 934 remaining nets.

They’re known as ghost nets – old tangles of synthetic lines snagged on underwater rocks or reefs and left behind by fishermen as long as seventy years ago.   

A coalition out of Mount Vernon has removed thousands of them over the past decade.  There’s still work to be done, but they’re running out of funding. 

Since 2002, The Northwest Straights Initiative has removed nearly four thousand derelict fishing nets from shallow waters of Puget Sound. “Because they just don’t degrade. They can get torn apart by wave action, but they won’t degrade," says Northwest Straits Initiative Director, Ginny Broadhurst.

"And here, especially in Puget Sound, they get caught in rocky reef habitat. And they get strung from one rock to another and they’ll be there for decades. ”

Broadhurst says they were first alerted to the problem by commercial fishermen, who would find these older abandoned nets tangled up with marine wildlife.

On this day, one of her crews is at work on Alden Bank, off the coast of Ferndale, north of Bellingham.  Part of a plastic net pulled up here brings with it a huge purple sea star, trying to wiggle its way out of the decaying green and brown lines, as well as hermit crabs and anemones. Also tangled up are dead Dungeness crabs and the bones of what might be a seal or seabird that will be sent to a lab for identification.

Broadhurst says this is typical, but the good news is, once they take the derelict gear out, fish and other creatures come back.

“So the beauty of the project is, as soon as the net’s out of the water, the damage is over and it’s no longer a threat.”

It’s considered a model restoration project and has received more than 4 and a half million dollars in federal stimulus money.  But that’s run out now. They have a map that shows 934 more nets still tangled up under the waters of Puget Sound. 

Northwest Straits video on ghost nets:

Here’s another by KCTS9 :







Bellamy Pailthorp covers the environment beat for KNKX, where she has worked since 1999. From 2000-2012, she covered the business and labor beat. Bellamy has a deep interest in Indigenous affairs and the Salish Sea. She has a masters in journalism from Columbia University.
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