Old gill nets: Silent killers of the Puget Sound

KINGSTON, Wash. (AP) - Old gill nets littering the sea floor are the silent killers of the Puget Sound.

But thanks to federal stimulus money, an ongoing effort to remove old fishing gear has picked up the pace.

The Northwest Straits Derelict Fishing Gear Removal Program received $4.6 million in stimulus dollars this summer. Now four boats and about a dozen paid divers are working on the problem full-time. The organization's goal is to remove 90 percent of the estimated 4,000 nets sitting in the Puget Sound by December 2010.

Tom Cowan is the project manager for the derelict gear removal program and a former director of the Northwest Straits Commission. He said the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, which awarded the grants, realized the environmental impact the nets were having.

Cowan estimates that over the last 30 years, nets have been responsible for the injuries or deaths of 30,000 birds, 110,000 fish and almost 2 million invertebrates.

"All of this marine life is really important for the ecosystem," Cowan said.

Over the last three months, four full-time boats and dive crews have recovered almost 600 nets, mostly from the San Juan Islands.

"This is one of the few environmental projects I've worked on where you can see you have an impact," said Jeff June, field manager for the project. "We can measure the amount of habitat we're restoring."

Steve Sigo, the skipper of Twila Dawn, has been fishing with his family since he was 12. This year, "fishing for nets" has opened his eyes to what it really means when gear is lost.

"I wouldn't have thought they do as much damage," Sigo said. "I wouldn't have thought they keep fishing like they do."

The four crews will continue working to catch these "ghost fishers" throughout the winter depending on weather and currents. The stimulus money is allowing them to work every day possible for the next 13 months and have a direct effect on the undersea environment.

"As soon as we pull it out of the water there's an immediate benefit to the ecosystem," Broadhurst said.