Economic stimulus protects Puget Sound’s environment

BLYN, WA.—Marine wildlife lovers sliced a chocolate cake and toasted the Obama administration’s grant of $4.6 million in economic stimulus funds to hire 40 or more scuba divers to remove derelict fishing nets that have killed untold millions of fish, marine mammals, and birds in the waters of Puget Sound over the past century.

The celebration took place during a meeting of the Northwest Straits Commission (NSC) at the Jamestown S’Klallam Tribal Community Center. Several reports were heard on the environmental crisis that threatens the fish, oysters, crabs, and marine mammals in the waters of the Pacific Northwest and the struggle to implement the NCS’s initiative aimed at reversing the decline.

Several members of the commission, including Executive Director, Ginny Broadhurst were unable to attend in person because the local airports were socked in with a heavy fog. But they joined the festivities by conference call.

S’Klallam tribal chairman, Ron Allen, welcomed the commission members and Clallam County Commissioner Mike Doherty greeted the crowd noting that environmental trends are so dire “we will be without wild fish within 50 years” if nothing is done to restore the ecosystem.

Broadhurst said the derelict net removal project is off to a fast start with two boats and their crews already at work diving, cutting up the nets and dragging them aboard the vessels. “It looks like there will be more people involved than just the 40 people,” she said. “This is a real boon for people being hit in the economic crunch. We’re moving really fast on this. It’s an 18-month project so we will do whatever is necessary to meet the parameters and finish on time. The focus is entirely on the removal of derelict nets. Over the past 20 years we have identified an estimated 3,000 nets throughout Puget Sound that should be removed.”

The NSC, she said, had done research for years on the derelict net problem and were ready to jump immediately when the Obama Administration started looking for “shovel ready” projects.

The scuba divers can dive to a maximum 105 feet but most of the work will be in water 80 feet deep, she said. It is considered dangerous work because the divers, like the fish, can become ensnared in the nets.

“We have documented the damage done to a huge variety of species by these derelict nets,” Broadhurst continued. “We counted 35,000 underwater animals that were caught in the nets. It is just a snap-shot of the damage imposed on these species by these nets.”

Currents and tides tend to deposit the drifting nets in certain “hot spots,” among them, a U.S. Wildlife Refuge at one end of Lopez Island in the San Juan Islands. A mound of bones of dead sea birds three feet deep and scores of yards long built up beneath a tangle of nets submerged in the waters of what was intended to be a sanctuary.

“The beauty of this project is the minute the net is out of the water, it is gone for good and there will be an immediate positive impact on the marine wildlife.”

Judging by the reports from several commissioners, net removal is just the tip of the iceberg. Several reports ended with sorrowful news that staff workers to implement the projects were laid off, or not hired in the first place because of budget cuts. Duane Fagergren, Special Projects Manager of the Puget Sound Action Team, told the meeting of the urgent need for research on the cause of the steep decline in the Olympic oyster population similar to the extermination of the prized Chesapeake Bay oyster. Scientists, he said, believe that “ocean acidification” linked to elevated releases of greenhouse gases, may be the cause of this die-off of oysters and other shellfish, directly related to global warming. “We have to put together a proposal that involves EPA money to get an exact calibration of ocean acidification,” he said.

He praised a recent conference on Native Oyster restoration attended by 30 people including representatives of 8 Native American tribes. Some observers considered it “the best workshop in the country because everyone was so cooperative and had a shared vision of what the problems are, the strategy to get to the solutions and the funding.” The aim, he said, is to “build back the naturally occurring oysters in the South Sound…The goal would be to bring back the oyster brood stock quickly providing enough larva to become self-sustaining, all of it done in nature rather than hatcheries which would be a last resort.”

Kathy Fletcher, founder of People for Puget Sound reported on President Obama’s June 12 memorandum, “National Policy for the Oceans, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes” with field hearings scheduled this fall in Providence, New Orleans, San Francisco, Anchorage, and a Great Lakes city yet to be specified.

Obama’s statement lays heavy stress on global climate change as the overriding threat to the oceans, lakes, and shores. The memo announces appointment of an Ocean Policy Task Force and orders it to develop within 90 days “a national policy that ensures the protection, maintenance, and restoration of the health of ocean, coastal, and Great Lakes ecosystems and resources, enhances the sustainability of ocean and coastal economies, preserves our maritime heritage…”
“Now would be as good time to consider an input to the Federal Task Force,” Fletcher said, suggesting an appeal to Obama to sign an Executive Order “to speed up” implementation of the national ocean policy.