DNR and Army partnership improving habitat in deep waters of San Juan Islands July 8-28

A new collaboration between the state Department of Natural Resources (DNR), Natural Resources Consultants and the U.S. Army's 569th Engineer Dive Detachment will help improve wildlife habitat in Puget Sound waters in San Juan County by removing derelict fishing nets beginning Monday, July 8, 2019.

Rockfish caught in derelict net.

The partnership provides the Army divers training in deep-water diving operations while removing wildlife-threatening derelict fishing nets at no cost to the state. Diving operations will be conducted off a contracted vessel starting July 8, with work concluding July 28.

The divers will remove deep-water derelict fishing nets as part the Department of Defense  Innovative Readiness Training Civil-Military Partnership. The program  provides a unique opportunity for communities to utilize the expertise of the military at no cost while the soldiers receive important training opportunities.

The Army Deepwater Derelict Net Removal project will target legacy derelict nets deeper than 105 feet along the steep, rocky habitats of the San Juan Islands. This partnership allows the Army Engineer Dive Detachment a chance to train in the dynamic Puget Sound waters while removing the damaging derelict nets.  Removing these nets will remove the immediate threat of entanglement to marine species.  These deepwater habitats are home to over 90 species of bottomfish.  These include cod, hake, pollock, sole, sculpin, shark, perch, and rockfish.  Two species of rockfish are listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

"This is a unique opportunity to partner with the Army to address the critical habitat for sealife in our northern waters, while service members also get the training they need to work in deep-water conditions," said Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz. "Working together, this project will ensure more derelict nets are removed as part of protecting and preserving our aquatic lands for fish and other marine wildlife."

There are currently 233 known deep water derelict nets that have been identified through side-scan sonar surveys, drop-camera surveys, and diver surveys within San Juan County during removal operations for shallow water derelict nets conducted in the last 10 years. The cost of removing the nets, as well as the technical skill needed at the depths the Army teams will work, has prevented retreival of the fishing nets.

Derelict fishing nets are known to continue to entangle and kill marine animals and to damage important marine habitats.

A total of 2,246 shallow water (to 105 feet in depth) derelict nets have been removed from San Juan County waters since 2002. These nets were damaging 344 acres of habitat. In those nets, 553 dead birds, 21 dead mammals, and 1,110 alive and dead fish were observed entangled. Most of the nets were lost years ago, during a time when salmon gillnet fishing was at its peak.

Divers will target nets along the west side of San Juan Island first, and retrieve other derelict fishing nets off of other islands as weather and tides allow.

Currently, it is estimated that 15 to 30 gillnets are lost annually. Commercial fisherman are required to report lost nets. The state and tribes support a Reporting, Response and Retreival program designed to ensure any newly lost nets do not re-accumulate in marine habitats.

Captain Tyler Leroy will be the Commander for the 569th Engineer Dive Detachment for execution of the project. Project lead for DNR is Monica Shoemaker. project lead for Natural Resources Consultants is Joan Drinkwin.


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