BELLINGHAM, WASH. — Bill Miller and his wife Margie were enjoying a Sunday mountain bike ride in this scenic town at the northern end of Puget Sound when they came upon a startling sight.
Where the bike trail descended to the beach, an abandoned, thousand-foot fishing net lay tangled in the driftwood and eelgrass. Snagged in the nylon gillnet were hundreds of dead salmon and a few dead seabirds, as well as hundreds of still-squirming Dungeness crabs.
"I saw the rotting fish inside, and it made me mad," says Mr. Miller. "Whoever did this is making a bad name for commercial fishermen and wasting lots of sea life."
That gill net, like another found nearby two weeks later with three dead harbor seals inside, is just the visible tip of an undersea tangle. Coastal waters around the world are littered with half a century's worth of modern nets, traps, pots, and other fishing gear, which can linger for decades before decaying. Most of the derelict gear is made of nearly indestructible monofilament nylon that can kill sea life - from albatrosses to whales - smother underwater habitats, and even pose hazards to boats and divers.
No one knows the full extent of the global damage since many snagged creatures never float to the surface. In Japan, some estimate the catch of octopus by derelict gear equals the nation's intentional catch. Nets lost anywhere in the North Pacific can drift for years until currents snag them on a shoal or reef. These ghost nets, mostly gigantic trawl nets arriving from thousands of miles away, are the most serious threat to the survival of the Hawaiian monk seal, America's most endangered marine mammal.
Now, some coastal areas are responding. Both Hawaii and the Puget Sound region have embarked on major cleanup efforts of the thousands of tons of leftover nets and traps in their waters.
In their eighth year of gear removal in the remote northwestern Hawaiian Islands, divers this summer painstakingly cut free and hauled to the surface more than 120 tons of nets snagged on coral reefs and other monk-seal habitats.
Meanwhile, Washington state's Northwest Straits Commission has established that region's first comprehensive program to remove fishing gear from the sea. The commission developed protocols for removing gear safely and without causing further habitat damage in Washington's cold, deep, and often murky waters, an inherently dangerous environment for divers. It has also set up a hotline and database to identify problem areas for future removals.
In a one-week pilot project, professional divers removed 11 tons of seine nets and crab pots from Puget Sound and the nearby Strait of Juan de Fuca.
Whether these intermittent cleanup efforts are actually making a dent in the seemingly endless tide of debris depends on who one asks. "There's layer upon layer of gear out there," says Sgt. Russ Mullins of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. His work helped lead the Lummi Nation's tribal police to arrest a tribe member for abandoning the net found by Bill Miller. "I know lots of spots that could keep them busy for a couple years," says Sergeant Mullins.
But Seba Sheavly of the Ocean Conservancy in Washington, D.C., sees progress. "Fishing-related gear has gone down over the past 15 years," says Ms. Sheavly, whose group organizes an international beach-cleanup day every September. "We're not finding as much of it abandoned. That means we are making headway."
Most derelict gear is from decades past, when many fish and shellfish were more abundant, and efforts have focused on after-the-fact cleanup more than waste prevention. "In Puget Sound, it's actually more important to get rid of nets and restore habitat," says Tom Cowan of the Northwest Straits Commission. "There's so little fishing going on that very few nets are now being lost."
Yet nationwide, natural and economic forces still conspire to send fishing paraphernalia to Davy Jones' locker. Hurricane Georges in 1998 caused about 100,000 spiny lobster traps to be lost at sea off Florida. Hurricane Isabel may have torn thousands more from their surface floats. These traps can keep on snaring marine life until they eventually break apart.
Many states today do require traps to incorporate a biodegradable, cotton "rot cord" on their doors to ensure that their trapping days are numbered.
While fishing gear is expensive, it can also be expensive to dispose of old, damaged gear properly - or to return from a fishing voyage without holds full of fresh seafood. Fishers under financial pressure may set their nets and traps in places and conditions with a greater risk of losing them. "In any fishery where there are more fishing vessels ... than the fishery can support, the competitive factor fosters risk-taking," says Jim Coe of the Alaska Fisheries Science Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"It's not in our best interest to have that stuff out there either," says Zeke Grader of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations, who blames a small number of irresponsible fishers for the problem. "Ours is a business that depends on a healthy environment. If we don't take care of it, we're out of business."