Bryan Dealing yells, “Stand by! Let it go! Twenty-six feet!” and then, splash! The diver, with his hand gripping the weighted rope that leads into the sea below him, steps off from the back of the boat into the cloudy, dark waters of Everett’s Port Gardner.
It’s the middle of February. While not raining, the wind blows hard across the chilling water and the boat deck offers little protection. Fully covered in neoprene, the diver will repeat this routine dozens of times this day, reaching between 20 and 50 feet below the surface with one goal: the removal of derelict crab pots from North Puget Sound.
Today’s mission is organized by the Northwest Straits Foundation, a Bellingham-based nonprofit marine conservation group. Originally started to provide financial support to the projects of the Northwest Straits Initiative, the foundation has since developed conservation programs aimed at protecting Puget Sound.
How do these crab pots get left behind, littering the sound? Mostly for just a few reasons: Improper weighting; or a line being cut by a boat, intentionally or by accident. “Behavior change is really hard and that is a lot of what we are trying to do,” says Jason Morgan, the foundation’s marine project manager, just as a muddy pot gets tossed onto the deck. Live crabs are still inside, waiting for a helping hand to return to their natural environment.
These “dive days” are carefully plotted ahead of time with the use of sonar. Prior to the dive day, a day is spent on the water mapping sites and finding “targets,” otherwise known as crab pots. Crab pots—generally a metal frame two or three feet in diameter and wrapped in netting or wire mesh—are recovered just a few at a time by divers and loaded onto the boat deck.
The process is slow and steady. After each dive, the boat travels for barely a few minutes before Dealing is calling commands again. As the sun rises higher, so does the stack of crab pots gently rocking on the deck. Each pot is carefully examined for clues to why it was left on the ocean floor. Marine animals, most often crabs, are returned safely to the water as they are found. And at the end of the day, the crab pots are either recycled or returned to the correct tribe or commercial agency, usually identifiable by the type of pot, to eliminate as much waste as possible.
While deep sea diving in the waters of Puget Sound any time of year, let alone in February, holds little appeal to most people, the Northwest Straits Foundation has good cause behind the madness. Removal of derelict pots through dives is one way the organization combats the degradation of marine habitat and the loss of marine life throughout the Puget Sound.
Lost crab pots, those that are left on the ocean floor rather than brought back up by their owner, can kill up to 50 crabs before completely deteriorating, says Morgan. Many pots that are left behind trap crabs and either have poor escape hatches or none at all. And while fishermen are required to take precautionary measures to avoid losing their pots or to allow crabs to escape if pots are lost, these measures don’t always work and are not always adhered to. With crab season opening as soon as summer rolls around (likely July 15 this year in most of Whatcom, Skagit and the San Juans), proper pot-setting methods are key to help mitigate the loss of crab pots.
Morgan carefully pulls the enormous Dungeness crabs one by one from a rescued pot and dips his hand over the boat to safely release the creatures. Since July 2016, projects have removed 4,100 pots and 5,600 derelict nets. Divers have found more than 450,000 marine animals representing 240 unique species inside crab pots and other derelict gear, according to the Northwest Straits Foundation website. The foundation works hard to remove derelict pots, but each site is visited only about once a year for removal, so much of the focus is on education.
In order to spread the word about proper crabbing techniques, the organization has used Facebook campaigns and handed out information at popular docks and retail stores. The organization plugs a “catch more crabs” message to appeal to all kinds of fishermen, from commercial to recreational to tribal, because who doesn’t want to catch more? A few tips: Use a line one-third longer than water depth; be aware of tides and currents; use weighted line and pots to avoid having line cut by boats or having pots get lost in currents.
However much outreach the foundation accomplishes, eliminating the problem comes down to removing human error, Morgan says. In addition to public outreach, the foundation has been working with manufacturers to create pots with more effective escape hatches that would allow crabs to safely exit a derelict pot. “It’ll take the human out of it. We will no longer have to change behavior,” he says. This season, fishermen have a great opportunity to use proper methods and catch more crabs.
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Find out more about Northwest Straits Foundation here.