Cleaning up the bay: Divers dig deep for derelict crab pots [ *** PHOTO GALLERY *** ]
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Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News
Biologist Paul Rudell inspects crabs pulled up in derelict crab pots from Dungeness Bay.
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Divers dragged 103 crab pots, many wrapped in seaweed, from the floor of Dungeness Bay in a retrieval effort last week aimed at eliminating hazards to marine life. Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News.
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Diver Joe Chang takes a breather after retrieving a derelict pot filled with 15 crabs from the floor of Dungeness Bay. Photo by Paul Rudell.
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Dozens of forgotten crab pots — the haul from a day’s diving in Dungeness Bay — sit in the back of a dump truck in John Wayne Marina after the Northwest Straits Foundation’s retrieval efforts last week. Photo by Joe Smillie/Peninsula Daily News.

By Joe Smillie
Peninsula Daily News

SEQUIM –– Grasping almost blindly on the floor of Dungeness Bay, a diver grabs hold of a rusted hunk of steel and wire, attaches it to a cable and swims back up to the surface to dump a dozen dead crabs onto the deck of a boat.

Then he goes back down.

Divers Joe Chang and Ken Woodside alternated those trips dozens of times this month as they combed the bay's floor to remove derelict crab pots for the Northwest Straits Foundation.

“These are tough guys to go up and down all day like that,” said Paul Rudell, a marine biologist who surveyed and analyzed the diving duo's catch aboard Capt. Doug Monk's ship, Bet-Sea, to retrieve forgotten crab pots.

“Especially when you get a juicy pot; that can get to be quite a haul.”

'Quite a haul'

The group pulled 103 pots — 99 crab pots and four shrimp pots — out of 17 square kilometers of the bay over 3 sailing days.

“It's nothing when you've been diving as long as we have,” said Woodside, a veteran diver whose Puget Sound fishing-equipment dives have been featured in national news stories over the past several years.

The Northwest Straits Foundation has programs all over the Puget Sound area to retrieve forgotten fishing gear in which thousands of marine animals die each year.

“This old equipment traps all kinds of species,” said Joan Drinkwin, Northwest Straits' programs director.

Through the end of 2012, dive teams working for Northwest Straits had removed 4,358 derelict fishing nets and 2,899 crab pots from the area, finding more than 291,015 animals from 270 separate species tangled in the gear in the program's 10 years.

Bad weather, mechanical failures and commercial and recreational fisheries leave tons of old fishing gear lost underwater.

Rudell said crews last picked all the derelict gear off the Dungeness Bay floor in 2008, which means all the 103 picked up in this go-around had been lost since then.

Most of that recovery was funded by a $4.6 million allocation from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus bill passed by Congress in 2009.

In addition to the crab pots, crews pull lost nets in shallow and deepwater areas that entangle sea lions, salmon, porpoise, crab and all fashion of other marine animals.

Sonar recon

Dive teams are preceded by boats that map the sea floor to find forgotten gear.

Those “reconnaissance” teams use sonar to spot pots on the floor, Rudell explained, and they do a good job of it.

“Our sonar team detected 103 pots on the floor,” he said. “And we pulled up 103 pots.”

He admitted, though, that a couple of the sonar-detected crab pots were actually rocks on the floor.

A few stray pots found under other pots but not detected by the sonar crew, though, made up the difference for the false “rock pots.”

Hatching an escape

Not all the crabs found in the pots come up dead.

Rudell noted that the team's diving expedition June 19 resulted in about 30 live Dungeness crabs that were returned to the bay from their traps.

Traps are built with escape hatches, but for Dungeness crabs, which can travel only horizontally, the top-sprung hatches are essentially useless, Rudell said.

“The only time it really works is if there are enough other crabs in the pot for them to crawl over and out the trap,” he said.

Oftentimes, too, the cords that allow the hatches to open and the animals to crawl out corrode under the saltwater cover.

Owners of recovered pots that still have tags attached are contacted to retrieve their gear, without facing penalties.

Other usable pots are sold by the foundation. Those that are unusable are taken to area dumps.

For more, visit the Northwest Straits Foundation's website at www.nwstraits.org.

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Sequim-Dungeness Valley Editor Joe Smillie can be reached at 360-681-2390, ext. 5052, or at jsmillie@peninsuladailynews.com.

Last modified: June 29. 2013 5:41PM
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