PORT TOWNSEND, Wash. (AP) _ An operation to clear Puget Sound and the North Olympic Peninsula's waters of derelict commercial fish nets has cleared more than 10,000 pounds of nets that trapped and killed thousands of salmon, bottom fish, crab, sea mammals and diving birds.
"We're going full blast now," said Jeff June, a Northwest Straits Commission consultant who is overseeing diving operations out of Port Townsend and Port Angeles, as well as Everett and Tacoma, that began in July.
June said that, through August, fish net cleanup crews -- made up of commercial divers who normally walk the ocean floor for sea cucumbers and geoducks and see the dangers the nets pose -- pulled 173 nets, many of them choked with the remains of sea life that include seals and porpoises.
Decades of thriving Puget Sound commercial and recreational fisheries have left tons of old fishing gear behind, as bad weather, mechanical failures and human error caused fishermen to lose or abandon their gear.
Thousands of old crab pots litter the sea floor, and thousands of nets are caught in rocky outcroppings and draped along waterways.
Gill nets and crab pots used by commercial and sport fishers can continue to trap sea life long after the original owners have abandoned the gear.
The Northwest Straits Commission has set a goal to clear 90 percent of existing derelict fishing nets from Puget Sound by 2012 through the Northwest Straits Initiative, which surveys and removes lost fishing gear.
The Northwest Straits Foundation earlier this year was awarded $4.6 million in economic stimulus funding through a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Over the next 18 months, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds will provide resources to find and remove an estimated 3,000 derelict nets that remain in the Sound.
The project is employing 38 people and restoring 645 acres of marine habitat, Northwest Straits officials said.
Ginny Broadhurst, Northwest Straits Commission director, said the stimulus grant has allowed the underfunded derelict gear program started in 2002 to greatly expand from one original diving boat out of Port Angeles, to four boats today.
"This is going to allow us to stop writing grant proposals and just get the project done," Broadhurst said, adding that the last grant was for $250,000, and did not stretch nearly as far as the new funding this year that will last for 16 more months.
Brian Santman, who owns the diving boat Tenacious, is operating out of the Port of Port Townsend Boat Haven marina, and his divers are covering the waters off East Jefferson County.
Tom Cowan, Northwest Straits Commission project manager said most crews right now are focusing on the San Juan Islands "because that's the highest priority today."
Broadhurst said she did not expect gear removal boats to move back into the Strait until this winter.
Since the Northwest Straits Commission started pulling derelict gear from the Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca in 2002, the agency reports diving operations have removed 1,287 nets covering 311 acres and weighing 217,747 pounds.
Derelict nets contained 62,796 live and dead animals including 32 dead marine mammals, 650 dead birds, 1,366 live and dead fish and 60,748 live and dead invertebrates, the commission said.
The program has trained 78 divers to perform the work, including 66 from the federal Department of Defense and 12 tribal divers.