Eliminating Threats of Derelict Crab Pots in Washington’s Salish Sea

Posted Wed, 08/10/2022 - 11:00

Guest blog by: Jason Morgan, Marine Project Manager, Northwest Straits Foundation

The wonders of Washington’s Salish Sea are easy to find. A day exploring here can include roaming a shoreline digging for clams while one of the region's many snowcapped mountains loom in the background, catching salmon, pulling up pots full of Dungeness crab, or traversing the majestic San Juan Archipelago. Living in this area comes with the responsibility to protect its beauty and the resources it provides. 

Underneath the waters of the Salish Sea lies a hidden threat to the ecosystem; lost and abandoned fishing nets and crab pots on the seafloor that degrade marine habitat and entangle and capture marine life with no one there to harvest them. The Northwest Straits Foundation has been working to eliminate this threat since 2002 by removing lost gear, researching impacts and solutions, and educating fishers on best practices to avoid losing gear. Since then, Northwest Straits Foundation has removed more than 5,800 derelict fishing nets and 6,000 crab pots, restored over 870 acres of marine habitat, and reached more than 350,000 people annually through the “Catch More Crab” outreach campaign.

A derelict crab pot full of crabs.
A recovered commercial derelict crab pot full of Dungeness crabs (Credit: NOAA).

In 2018, Northwest Straits Foundation partnered with the Jefferson and Clallam County Marine Resources Committees, with the support of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, to conduct a three-year derelict crab pot removal and outreach project in Port Townsend Bay and Dungeness Bay, located on the Olympic Peninsula. The project’s goal was to eliminate the immediate and future harm of recreational derelict crab pots through annual removals, and measure the success of a local outreach campaign by evaluating changes in crab pot loss over time. 

A diver jumps into a bay to retrieve derelict crab pots.
A diver jumps into Dungeness Bay to retrieve derelict crab pots (Credit: NOAA).

This collaborative effort removed 746 derelict crab pots to clear 5,644 acres of marine debris. We distributed more than 1,900 informational packages throughout the two communities and provided 15 presentations to key audiences, and six workshops were held to educate crabbers on best crabbing practices. Changes in annual pot loss rates varied for each location. In Dungeness Bay, recreational crab pot loss decreased by 43%, while Port Townsend Bay had a 31% increase. 

Important lessons were learned from the differing results in each location. Dungeness Bay is a relatively secluded area with its primary vessel traffic being local fishers and crabbers. Our study showed that messaging and outreach methods used there were an effective tool in reducing crab pot loss within more remote communities. Port Townsend Bay, in contrast, is a popular port town destination and a common transit route for vessels traveling to and from various regions of the Salish Sea. Though we worked closely with the port and local government on outreach within the local community, our efforts did not include the tourist industry; therefore, we likely missed a large contingency of crabbers and mariners resulting in the increased annual loss rate.

A team member pulls a derelict crab pot aboard a boat.
The Northwest Straits Foundation Field Operations Manager pulls a derelict crab pot onboard (Credit: NOAA).

The Northwest Straits Foundation is already using results of this project to inform efforts of the “Catch More Crab” outreach campaign. Through partnerships with community organizations, local businesses, Washington State Ferries, and ports, our educational campaign is being shared broadly and reaching millions of community members and tourists each year throughout the Salish Sea region. Our campaign will continue to evolve and expand in the years ahead as a key part of our efforts to eliminate harm from derelict fishing gear in Washington’s Salish Sea.