BLAINE, Wash. — A team of U.S. Army deep sea divers spent nearly four weeks recovering derelict fishing nets from deepwater habitats on the bottom of the Puget Sound, partnering with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources through the Department of Defense’s Innovative Readiness Training Program.
The team of about 25 divers from the Army’s 86th Engineer Dive Detachment dove in waters up to 190 feet deep, aiming to recover nine nets, some of which were over 500 feet in length.
The team was hand-selected to assemble some of the most experienced and skilled divers in the Army due to the hazardous nature of the mission, according to Staff Sgt. Chris Miller, a diving supervisor on the team. Miller said it took over ten days just to plan the dive schedule because of how complex the tides are in that particular part of the Puget Sound.
“This is probably one of the most high-risk, complex and dangerous missions we’ll do all year,” Miller said.
Joan Drinkwin, marine conservationist and vice president at Natural Resources Consultants, a private fisheries consulting firm on contract with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, said the nets pose a significant hazard to marine life in the Puget Sound, including some endangered fish species and Dungeness crab, which are widely harvested for food.
“This habitat is critical habitat for listed rockfish species here in Puget Sound,” Drinkwin said. “Derelict nets when they’re in this kind of habitat roll up, damage the reef, damage other animals and impede access to the habitat for these different species.”
It would have been cost-prohibitive and thus unlikely that these deepwater derelict nets would have ever been recovered without the Army’s help, according to Drinkwin.
“We had these targets for deepwater nets, but there was no way we could possibly get those nets out of the water with our divers because having a decompression chamber on a vessel is extremely expensive,” Drinkwin said. “So this partnership with the Innovative Readiness Training program and the Army dive team is incredibly important to us. We would never be able to get these nets out of the water without these divers.”
The deep sea divers on this mission earned a military occupational specialty as Engineer Diver (12D), who travel all over the world to carry out missions for the U.S. Army, said Sgt. Elis Lopez, a lead diver with the unit. In the last two years alone, Lopez said he and his team have been to Kuwait, Poland, West Virginia, Memphis and Seattle.
“We’re primarily engineers underwater. The general concept is, anything a combat engineer needs to do that has to be done underwater, that’s what they send us out for. We do pier demolition, construction, boat inspections, and a lot of recovery and salvage work.”
The Innovative Readiness Training program is a Department of Defense-funded program whose mission is “to produce mission-ready forces through military training opportunities that provide key services to American communities.” These Army divers were able to train on their mission-essential task lists, hone their skills and practice their operations in a real-world environment while simultaneously helping a state agency accomplish its goal of cleaning up its marine habitats.