Group Removes Net Off Santa Catalina Island

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Some 150 feet below the surface of the Pacific, off Santa Catalina Island, Calif., a volunteer crew is working to remove a massive fishing net from a sunken trawler. Kurt Lieber, of the Ocean Defenders Alliance, the group that is removing the net, talks about the effort.


Like thousands of fishing boats off America's shores, the Infidel has giant nets that catch all kinds of sea creatures. But unlike most, the Infidel is a ghost ship, a sunken wreck 150 feet below the surface. And for about two years now, the trawler's tangled nets have snared and killed sharks, dolphins, sea lions, and fish off Southern California's Santa Catalina Island. Now volunteer divers are taking on the dangerous work of removing those nets. Kurt Lieber is one of them. He's also head of the Ocean Defenders Alliance. It's a nonprofit devoted to cleaning up abandoned fishing gear. Mr. Lieber, thanks for being with us.

Mr. KURT LIEBER (Founder, Ocean Defenders Alliance): Nice to be here.

BLOCK: And you've been diving down to the Infidel. Tell me what it's been like to try to cut away these nets.

Mr. LIEBER: Well, first of all, when you drop down on it, it's a very disturbing site. It's a very eerie site to see a very large trawler completely encased in a series of nets. Now, this is only one net, and it's a big billowing net. So, when the ship sank, this net just was floated around the top of the mast and drapes down from there to the sand. Every time I go down there, it just feels like an open graveyard because you're seeing scattered bones and skulls all over the place.

BLOCK: How big is this net and how do you go about trying to cut it away?

Mr. LIEBER: It's - we estimated right now that it's 9,000 pounds. We were hoping to be able to take it away in one section, but that proved to be way out of whack. There's no way we're going to get out in one cut. So we are just really systematically going around various parts of hull, seeing what will come up easily, and then we take our cutting tools, which are knives and surgical shears, and cut around the area where we can free it. Obviously, this wreck has a lot of rigging on it, and the rigging is what's catching a lot of the net. So, we place lift bags in various corners of the net, raise those lift bags up - we fill them with air and it raises them up a little bit - and then we can see where we can cut and not snag anything.

BLOCK: What's the most dangerous part of all of that?

Mr. LIEBER: Just what I described. The divers are putting those lift bags on this net. And as the lift bags go towards the surface, when the net gets cut free, if the diver is near that area and they get snagged on the net - and it's easy to do - that's when the diver can become, you know, entangled in it and be flown to the surface very fast. And that will cause the bends and possibly die.

BLOCK: Do you have a sense of how long it's going to take to get rid of this massive net down there?

Mr. LIEBER: I've been on these projects for quite a while, and they all take on their own life. I removed an 800-pound net which is one-tenth the size of this. And that 800-pound net took us three months because of weather conditions. And we're a nonprofit. We all have day jobs. So we can't go out during the week. But that one 800-pound net took us seven dive days. Now this net, I would have to say it's going to be at least 15 dive days.

BLOCK: How big a problem are nets like these, do you think?

Mr. LIEBER: Well, there's been a study up in Washington where they analyzed a net that had been down for 10 years. They were doing a study on the amount of animals killed in that. And 30,000 animals died every year in that. Now that's mammals as well as the fish and invertebrates. So when you compound that over the thousands of nets that are out there, it's a huge problem. All our fisheries are severely depleted. I can't think of one that's sustainable, even though the government will tell you there are a couple of them. But all of them are severely reduced. So anything we can do to minimize that impact on the fisheries is a big benefit.

BLOCK: And these are nets, I'm sure, that are designed to last an extremely long time.

Mr. LIEBER: That's the unfortunate part. These are made out of hemp, which deteriorates over time, but they're interwoven with polypropylene. And those will be down there for hundreds, if not thousands of years.

BLOCK: Well, Mr. Lieber, thanks for talking with us. Appreciate it.

Mr. LIEBER: So do I. Thanks for the invite.

BLOCK: Kurt Lieber is the founder of the Ocean Defenders Alliance. He's one of the divers working to remove nets from the Infidel which sank off the California coast.

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