Ghost nets are fishing nets that have been lost, and continue to tumble across the floor of the body of water it was lost in. As these nets move through the water they continue to trap fish, which end up suffocating and dying. The dead fish attract other wildlife which are looking for an easy meal, such as other fish, crabs, even birds and seals. When they approach the fish in the nets these critters also get entangled, and meet their end trapped. To learn more about ghost nets, the effects they cause, and what is being done with them, we asked Tmkey Film/Research, a team that focuses on cleaning up ghost nets some questions. The team consists of Doc Thoemke and Sandy Norman, and we asked them all what who they are, what they do, and what people can do to help.
While we had a general idea of what ghost nets are, we wanted to know more about what they do to the species within the surrounding ecosystem. Doc told us that the species most affected are the, “Wild chinook salmon, sea birds, the endangered stugeron, the green and white sturgeon, and every species of marine birds and mammals that we have in the water, seals, whales, porpoises, the regular fish that live in that area, you know the bottom fish and things like that, and so, it affects all of that.” The fish that are caught within the nets die as the stress of being trapped and struggling to get free is too much for their hearts.
Doc then gave us a breakdown on how the resulting carcasses affect the water. It takes oxygen to dissolve the carcass in the water, depleting the oxygen levels and causing the nitrogen levels to be higher. This is detrimental to the fish as there isn’t a large amount of oxygen in the water, due to the amount of pollutants in the water. Pollutants enter the water from a variety of sources, everything from nitrogen in the atmosphere to the lead in fishing nets affect the oxygen levels. Having the fishing nets in the water for a short period of time doesn't cause a lot of damage, but when the nets become lost, consequently turning into ghost nets, over time the lead will start to affect the water in negative ways. With the pollutants in the water and the oxygen being used to decompose carcasses, the water becomes very heavy in nitrogen.
Doc told us that due to the high nitrogen levels the fish don’t have enough oxygen to breathe through their gills, so they either suffocate or come up to the surface to breath. When they come up to the surface to get oxygen from the air, the birds get them. He told us about what he saw when he was on the Hood Canal: “We had tons of salmon and all kinds of krill, and all kinds of herring, little fishes, perches, sun shiners, they call them shiners, the little fish, that were all washing up onto the beach dead because they couldn’t live in the water. Or they come up into the shallows to try to get oxygen off of the surface, but then a flock of seabirds come in and just chow down.”
Another example of this effect is that Tmkey Film/Research found popcorn shrimp, a crustacean usually found in 200 feet of water, now living in 5 to 10 feet of water, because that’s where they were getting the most amount of oxygen to survive. This cycle shows that the seafloor is dying, which affects not only all life in the water, but also the health and livelihoods of the people who rely on the sea for food and business.
Ghost nets are clearly a problem, but people aren’t just standing around; the Ghost Net Busters are here and they’re working against this foe.
Doc Thoemke is the ghost net guy of Washington state; he is a retired US merchant marine officer, Inspected Master. He’s been working on cleaning up ghost nets since 1991, and is now part of Tmkey Films/Research, and member of the Ghost Net Busters!
Doc first started cleaning up ghost nets because of an incident that occurred while he was still running a salmon charter boat. Running the boat meant his livelihood was dependant on catching fish for his clients, so he and his crew used an underwater camera to watch fish bite the lure. While looking at the fish, they came across a net tumbling across the seafloor, all by itself, and the camera got hooked up in it. When they brought it up to the surface, they found all sorts of dead critters ensnared in the net, even birds. He dragged the net up to Suquamish and called up some of the fisheries around that area. The police and other people gathered, and together they worked to clean out the net, which took over three hours; they even found an otter in the net. Doc said, “So that kind of told me we have a serious problem with derelict gear.” That October, he quit his job running a salmon charter boat and the following year at the January sports show, some fisheries approached him and asked if he would like to be involved in a derelict gear removal program, and be a grant writer with them. Doc agreed, and he helped write a 200 million dollar project to start derelict gear and ghost net removal, and became the coordinator for the project. He said, “from there it just kind of spiraled off.”
Doc isn’t doing this alone, as he has the help from the other members of the team, the “Ghost Net Busters.” The Ghost Net Busters include everyone working with Doc, from the volunteers helping to the other members of his team, Sandy Norman. They’ve both been working with Doc for about a year, and using their strengths, they make the team strong. Sandy said, “Well he [Doc] likes to call me ‘the safety person,’ because I’m the mother hen.” As Sandy’s regular job is a nurse, it’s no surprise that she has the title of LPN & Safety Inspector. The last member of their team is Jackie, the beagle, who has the title of Carrion Dog. She can find the nets using her sense of smell and lead the team and any volunteers to them.
The team has already done many projects, and they’ve cleaned up everywhere. They work in all of the inner Puget Sound, as well as the Strait of Juan de Fuca. That’s 22,000 miles of shoreline in the Puget Sound. A more specific map of where they work is the South Sound, which is Vashon Island to Olympia; the Middle Sound, which is in front of Seattle and up towards Everett; and finally the North Sound, which is the area around San Juan Islands, and then the Strait of Juan de Fuca. They clean up rivers as well, such as the Puyallup River, but they mostly stick to the shoreline of the inner Puget Sound. Doc told us about a specific area he had just finished working with. He worked with the Quinault tribe up on the Chehalis River, and using the underwater drones there they found and identified over 6 tons of lost netting and thousands of fish dead.
When asked about their current goals, Doc said his vision was “...to do a beach clean up but yet have it sponsored by a private entity, rather than the state and federal government.” To accomplish this as a team, they’ll set up a banner on their boat, showing the the name of the company that supports them, and launch from Port Orchard in the early morning, then run the boat along the Gorst highway on the far side of the Sinclair Inlet. On the boat, using a drone, they scout out their location underwater. They hope that while scouting and cleaning up the nets on the boat, the banner will advertise what they do to people driving by, and spread the word about what they do. Doc also said there’s a lot of clean up to be done on the rocks, as they’ve found things such as seals, jellyfish, and invasive species on them. This means there will be clean up both on the water and on the shore so anyone can participate, even those that aren’t fans of being on a boat. They’re going to start this project on May 1st, and they will continue their efforts until October 15th, and then they will start again next year. As Doc said, “...it’s an on-going year-to-year thing. We want to take advantage of the better weather...”
If you would like to volunteer your time to help Tmkey Film/Research, and become a “ghost net buster” yourself, there are several ways you can help. Tmkey Film/Research is looking for sponsored support, financially, for their next project. The company that decides to help support them will have their name on the banner that will be on top of the boat. Every sponsorship helps, and Tmkey Film/Research would like to send out a huge thank you to Mustang for their survival gear. If you can’t help financially, don’t fret, Tmkey Film/Research is also looking out for volunteers to help their clean-up efforts. To learn more, contact Doc at email@example.com or go see their Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Tmkeyresearch/.