Stillaguamish Tribe Fights Dangerous, Ecologically Devastating Derelict Gear

PORT SUSAN (June 21, 2005) – A $56,000 grant will allow the Stillaguamish Tribe to remove hundreds of abandoned crab pots and an unknown number of gillnets from Port Susan, eliminating risks to boaters, scuba divers and numerous aquatic species.

“Derelict fishing gear poses real dangers for people using Port Susan, like fishermen,” said Jen Sevigny, a wildlife biologist coordinating the project for the Stillaguamish Tribe. “Abandoned crab pots also kill significant amounts of Dungeness crab, which in turns hurts the salmon that feed on young crab.”

The tribe has worked for more than two years to remove that danger. Begun in 2003, a tribal initiative has been identifying and removing derelict gear in the Port Susan area.

Now, a grant from the Russell Family Foundation will enable the tribe to finish what it started.

Removal of 281 abandoned crab pots identified by tribal studies will begin this month. Working with a local firm, Natural Resource Consultants, the tribe hopes to complete work before commercial crab season begins in July.

“The crab pots aren’t as big a threat to humans as gillnets are, but we’re interested in removing them to protect the ecosystem,” said Shawn Yanity, Stillaguamish tribal chairman. “As long as they’re in the water, they’re killing fish and crab. To be good stewards of our natural resources, we have to remove them.

Protecting those resources becomes all the more important when species, such as the chinook salmon, are federally protected. Since the Stillaguamish River is a source of wild chinook, Port Susan is considered a critical habitat area for the fish, which are listed as “threatened” under the Endangered Species Act. The Stillaguamish River feeds Port Susan through Hat Slough.

“Studies show that chinook salmon rely on crab populations for food; Dungeness crab larvae are a staple food for juvenile chinook,” said Sevigny. “This means there is a direct link between removing abandoned crab pots and protecting threatened fish.”

In addition to removing crab pots, the grant will fund scuba dive surveys intended to find more abandoned gillnets.

Because derelict gillnets are difficult for divers, boaters and fishermen to see, they are sometimes called “ghost nets.” Floating freely, nets can trap and drown divers, foul propellers and otherwise threaten human safety.

Abandoned crab pots and gillnets are also deadly for the area’s fish and crab. trapping animals beneath the sea. Since monofilament does not decompose, people, fish and birds risk becoming trapped in ghost nets until they are removed.

Besides saving wildlife and minimizing risks to humans, the work is improving natural resource management, too.

“We’re getting valuable data from this project,” said Pat Stevenson, environmental director with the Stillaguamish Tribe. “Sonar information from our surveys is giving us a clearer picture of the types of habitat in Port Susan.

We’re also learning what species and how many creatures are being killed by these nets, which is mortality information that fisheries planners haven’t been able to plan for in the plan. Finding out what specific impacts derelict gear cause will only help our fisheries management efforts.”

The tribes and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife are co-managers of the state’s natural resources.

Other tribes and NRC have worked together to remove derelict gear in other areas. Both the Tulalip Tribes and the Puyallup Tribe provided funding for a pilot project where the company removed a large ghost net from Tulalip Bay in 2003. The firm also worked with Lower Elwha Klallam biologists and employed divers from the tribe during NRC’s efforts to clean up abandoned gear in Clallam Bay.

Since the Stillaguamish do not currently have a marine fishery, the tribe is trying to clean up a dangerous mess that they did not create. Still, tribal officials emphasize, no part of this project is designed to blame or punish anyone. If owners of lost gear can be identified through crab pot tags or identification numbers on gillnet floats, the tribe and NRC will arrange to return the gear. If not, the consulting group usually recycles usable gear by donating it to educational institutions with fisheries science programs.

“To us, it doesn’t matter whose gear this is,” said Yanity. “What matters is that removing it will benefit our natural resources – and that’s in everyone’s best interests.”

The Russell Family Foundation, the funding organization, is a Gig Harbor-based sustainability funding organization.


For more information, contact: Jeff Shaw, Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, 360.424.8226; Shawn Yanity, tribal chair, Stillaguamish Tribe, (360) 652-7362; Jen Sevigny, Stillaguamish Tribe, (360) 435-2755.