Lost fishing gear becoming big threat to Puget Sound marine life
The death of a rescued seal pup, trapped in an underwater tangle of fishing line, shows the deadly toll of lost fishing gear. Old fishing nets, crab pots, lines and hooks ensnare and kill more than half a million sea creatures in Puget Sound every year, according to the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative.
Seattle Times science reporter
Video: Seal pup Sandy
© 2012 Robin Lindsey
Most of the seal pups Robin Lindsey tries to save don't make it. That's why Sandy's story seemed especially sweet.
The young female was so emaciated, her ribs jutted out and her skin hung in folds when she hauled out on a West Seattle beach last summer. But after five months of rehabilitation, she had plumped up so nicely Lindsey called her "blubber ball."
After she was released back into Puget Sound in January, more than 600 people followed Sandy's ramblings, thanks to a satellite tag and special website.
"It was really an amazing thing," said Lindsey, of the volunteer Seal Sitters Marine Mammal Stranding Network. "She appeared to be thriving."
Then came the call April 1: Divers had discovered the young seal's body tangled in fishing line off the Edmonds pier.
"It was just a heartbreaking thing," Lindsey said.
But what happened to Sandy isn't uncommon. What's uncommon is for anyone to notice.
Old fishing nets, crab pots, lines and hooks ensnare and kill more than half a million sea creatures in Puget Sound every year, according to the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative.
Since 2002, the group has pulled up more than 4,000 nets and nearly 3,000 crab pots, along with the corpses of everything from porpoises to grebes.
But more than 12,000 crab pots are lost every year — mostly by recreational fishermen — and there's no way to quantify the snarls of monofilament snapped off spinning rods or cut and discarded by heedless anglers.
"Marine debris is a huge problem," said Brenda Peterson, a West Seattle writer and founder of Seal Sitters. "Sandy's death is a wake-up call that highlights our own pollution and carelessness."
Divers who recovered Sandy's body from about 50 feet of water last week also hauled up giant tangles of fishing line and lures, Lindsey said. One fisherman told the team that hooks often snag on tires dumped in the water years ago to create an artificial reef.
"He was very upset when he heard about the seal," Lindsey said. "Fishermen are aware of this issue."
Working with commercial, recreational and tribal fishermen, the Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative takes a "no-fault" approach to the problem to encourage quick reporting and recovery of lost nets and other gear. A $4.5 million stimulus grant allowed the group to temporarily expand from one part-time vessel to four boats operating full time in Puget Sound.
The marine-conservation group SeaDoc Society sponsors gear-cleanup programs in California. Many recreational fishing docks there now feature recycling stations where fisherman can safely discard monofilament line, said SeaDoc's Joseph Gaydos.
According to a study the group sponsored, young marine mammals are particularly vulnerable to entanglement.
Sandy's satellite tag was part of an effort to better understand survival rates of harbor seals and the effectiveness of programs to rescue abandoned pups, Gaydos said. Last year, the group worked with wildlife agencies to tag 10 wild pups and 10 rehabilitated pups, then compare movements.
They found the pups that had spent time in captivity traveled much farther than their wild cousins, apparently in search of food. It's likely the rescued pups miss out on some critical education passed from mother to offspring, Gaydos said.
The study wasn't able to compare mortality rates between the two groups, because the transmitters drop off after a few months.
In Washington, only a few pups are cared for each year — because there are so few slots, Lindsey said.
The Progressive Animal Welfare Society's Wildlife Center in Lynnwood, where Sandy was nursed back to health, can hold only 10 at a time. "As much as we want to, we can't pick up every struggling pup," Lindsey said.
The Seal Sitters patrol area beaches beginning in June, when pups are born. They help protect the babies from dogs and curious humans, and keep an eye out for thin and ailing pups, which have probably been abandoned by or separated from their mothers.
Of those, a handful will wind up at PAWS, Lindsey said. In the wild, about half of the pups die in their first year of life.
After Sandy's return to Puget Sound, she covered a lot of ground. From the release site south of Tacoma, she traveled as far south as Olympia, then as far north as the San Juan Islands. In about nine weeks, she traveled more than 600 miles.
Lindsey was actually relieved when the satellite signal first showed the pup was hanging out near the Edmonds jetty. She thought Sandy would be safer there than in the San Juans, where she might run afoul of transient, seal-eating orcas.
Even Gaydos, a veteran of wildlife studies, was affected by the drowning. "I see a lot of dead seals," he said. "But once you start following an animal, it becomes personal."
Sandi Doughton: 206-464-2491 or firstname.lastname@example.org