How did this Washington State crab buoy wind up in a tree on Wake Island?
Ever have one of those “What a small world!” moments? Well, SeaDoc recently experienced a remarkable one when our founding director and current board member Dr. Kirsten Gilardi received an email from out of the blue—from way out of the blue.
The message was from her brother-in-law, John Gilardi, who’d been out doing his quarterly survey of seabirds on Wake Island, a miniscule coral atoll that’s 2,300 miles west of Hawaii, 1,500 east of Guam, and 1,000 miles south of nowhere.
“I’d gone to the windward side of the island to count gray-backed terns,” says John, an ecologist who the islanders call Birdman. “They like to nest there amid the coral rubble thrown up by storms.”
Of course coral isn’t the only thing cast ashore by the wind and waves. “That side of the atoll collects all kinds of flotsam, jetsam and other man-made debris,” says John. “I always keep an eye out hoping to find old Japanese glass fishing floats, but mostly it’s trash like bottles, buckets, cigarette lighters and shoes. The folks on Wake do cleanups every few months, but it just keeps coming.”
On this particular beach survey, John spotted a flash of color that turned out to be a modern fishing float. When he got closer, John noticed that the buoy still had its Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife commercial crab license tag attached. That’s when he had an "aha" moment. “I thought, ‘I bet Kirsten would be interested in this!’”
There’s even more to the coincidence beyond the gee whiz improbability of a SeaDoc-family relative finding a Washington crab float that somehow navigated the great Pacific gyres on a three-and-a-half-year odyssey to a speck of land less than two square miles in area some 4,300 miles from the Salish Sea. As it happens, John’s sister-in-law Kirsten has been wrapped up in lost fishing gear for years.
Her involvement started at a SeaDoc board meeting more than a decade ago. “I remember board member Tom Cowan bugging me about this great fishing gear recovery program they had going on in Puget Sound,” says Kirsten.
Tom was the first director of the Northwest Straits Commission, and back around the year 2000 he’d asked several groups of scientists to come up with a priority list of actions the NWSC could take to begin restoring the Salish Sea.
“They all came back saying derelict fishing gear, especially nets, was a huge problem,” says Tom, who then received a grant from NOAA to come up with a safe and effective way to remove nets lost on Puget Sound’s rocky reefs.
Derelict nets keep ghostfishing for decades, and SeaDoc got involved by developing a statistical modeling program that predicts the killing capacity of lost gear and the cost/benefit ratio of removal. The resulting scientific paper written by Kirsten, Tom and others proved beyond any doubt the great economic benefit of clearing derelict nets.
“We showed that every year, along with killing huge numbers of seabirds and marine mammals, these nets were destroying millions of dollars worth of commercial seafood like Dungeness crab,” says Tom. “When we figured out a way to remove them at relatively low cost by hiring fishing-industry divers to haul them up, the program really took off.”
Kirsten caught gear recovery fever from Tom, and brought it back with her to UC Davis, SeaDoc's administrative home. After several years of operating a program using divers just like Washington, though, SeaDoc gave the concept a Golden State twist. While Puget Sound’s program involved paying sea cucumber divers to clear fishermen’s gill nets, Kirsten’s idea was to incentivize fisher folks to recover gear lost within their own industry.
“For the last few years, our program has focused on the Dungeness crab fishery in California,” says Kirsten. “When commercial crabbers can’t work because it's off season or there's a closure due to algal blooms, we figured out a way they can still get out on the water and get paid to recover lost crab traps.”
The program SeaDoc started was such a success that it has been turned into a California State law called the Whale Protection & Crab Gear Recovery Act (crab gear is also a major entanglement threat to migrating whales). It's hoped that the act will become financially self-sustaining through the fees crabbers pay to buy back their lost gear.
And there’s yet another circle-of-saving-sealife aspect to this story. After recovering more than 5,900 fishing nets from the Washington State portion of the Salish Sea and thereby transforming nearly 900 acres of killing zones into healthy, productive habitat, Northwest Straits has now turned its attention, like SeaDoc in California, to lost crab pots.
The float that went on walkabout all the way across the Pacific until it was found by the brother-in-law of SeaDoc’s lost-gear guru was originally attached to one of an estimated 14,000 commercial and recreational crab pots that are lost each year in Washington State waters.
The Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife runs a program in the state’s coastal waters that allows commercial crabbers to get a special WDFW permit and head out after the season to scour the Pacific coast for lost gear. The arrangement cleans the habitat and clears potential entanglement risks, and the benefit for the keen-eyed crabbers who recover gear is finders keepers. But the program doesn’t include the waters of the Salish Sea, where some 12,000 of those crab traps go missing every year.
Northwest Straits has already recovered 4,700 lost traps in Puget Sound, but obviously there’s a lot more for all of us to do. Recreational crabbers and shrimpers can do their part by making sure their traps don’t go missing in the first place by using enough weight to hold them in place, rigging more than enough sinking-type line to account for the depth, having proper biodegradable escape panels, and by not setting traps when the tides and currents are too extreme.
The gear recovery programs SeaDoc has been involved with in Washington and California are both huge successes and have become models for similar efforts around the world. Out on Wake Island, John "Birdman" Gilardi hung that well-traveled crab float on a Casuarina tree as a symbol of our interconnectedness.
All the world’s oceans and seas share problems like marine debris and ghostfishing gear that kills wildlife and damages habitat. But by sharing solutions and supporting restoration efforts, we are making a difference.