Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#326: The Infidel and its Ghastly Ghost Net

In last week's column on the trash removed by divers from Avalon Bay during our annual harbor cleanup, I ranted about the irresponsibility of those who intentionally (vs accidentally) allowed that trash overboard. Trash accumulating in our oceans has been an issue of concern to me for years. I've literally been diving the park and had empty beer cans drift down from fishers on the breakwater above me, and we continually remove clusters of such cans and bottles carelessly and intentionally discarded. I've encountered numerous objects on the bottom at various dive sites, obviously originating from fishing and boating activities in the area. While on the Navy's deep diving training vessel, Mayor Kennedy and I watched as a diver surfaced from a depth of 500 feet with a number of bottles he retrieved just from the immediate area he worked. These accrued over decades as cross-channel vessels headed towards the island. Some day I'll write about the unbelievable debris field in the Pacific formed by trash brought together by an ocean gyre.

The accumulation of such debris is the result of many people, rather than just a few. Today I want to talk about the actions of a small group of people resulting in a massive deposit of deadly trash on the ocean floor right off our island. I'm referring to the wreck of the squid boat "Infidel" that sank off the East End light in December of 2006. It has been reported that this vessel sank due to a human characteristic "popularized" in a 1987 Oliver Stone movie starring Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko who said "G-R-E-E-D is GOOD." I think we recently discovered in the current economic meltdown that greed has become quite commonplace at various levels in our society. According to the reports on the Infidel's sinking, the vessel had already filled its hold with squid, but the captain wanted one more load. Allegedly the baflfes were not secured in the hold to prevent the squid and water from shifting, so when the heavy net was lifted, it caused the load to shift overturning and sinking the vessel. So I guess greed can be bad... as many of us who played by "the rules" are discovering these days.

When the Infidel sank, it posed a number of environmental and safety issues. The vessel's captain did contact Bob Kennedy who sent a team of divers to secure the fuel tanks so they wouldn't leak toxic diesel into our waters. Unfortunately the electronics and wiring pose an additional hazard due to contaminants such as PCB's. The fishing net probably could have been retrieved at that point, but the owner allegedly was unwilling to pay for that extra effort. The net has rested, draped over the vessel like a huge circus tent and sitting on the bottom, for over two years now. Not only has it become further entangled on the wreck, it has also increased its weight to perhaps four or more tons due to encrusting marine life. Over that time swimming animals including sea lions and sharks have become entrapped in the net and died. As a marine biologist, this is a serious environmental threat. For divers, the same fate could await them if the net isn't removed from the vessel, so it poses a safety hazard for humans as well.

A major question needs to be addressed: who is responsible for such debris carelessly left on our ocean floor, and for addressing the environmental and human safety hazards it poses? Now I'm not trained in the law, but common sense seems to suggest the owner of the vessel should be responsible. If someone draped a comparable object on the walls of the Grand Canyon, on top of Yosemite's Half Dome, over the redwoods or even on a massive urban skyscraper, there would be a public uproar and the perpetrator would be made responsible. Heck, people even complained when environmental artist Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude wrapped buildings (and islands) in fabric and placed umbrellas all over natural landscapes. Unfortunately there appears to be no such remedy for ocean debris. Out of sight, out of mind. Once again our local divers have responded, and risked their lives, in trying to eliminate the threats this wreck poses.

Catalina Divers Supply (CDS) instructor Donny Neel contacted Sea Shepherd for help, and they forwarded the request to one of their board members, Kurt Lieber of Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA), I met Kurt several years ago, and had hoped to get him involved in this situation when the vessel initially went down. At the time there was no coordinated approach to dealing with it, although SCUBA Luv took divers out there to assess the situation and begin removing the net. Kurt responded enthusiastically and Jason Manix organized a local team of divers from SCUBA Luv, CDS, Ron Moore's Dive Catalina, Avalon's Harbor Department and independent local divers. This team did their first dive on the wreck in January of this year. I couldn't dive due to a cold, but was quite interested in the project.

A second dive on the Infidel occurred February 28th. Both Bob Kennedy and Kurt Lieber had asked me to join it, primarily to offer a marine biological assessment but also to videotape the net removal effort. A team from KCET (PBS) came out on Kurt's boat "Clear Water" to film the effort topside and interview many of those involved, including me as marine biologist. Since this was my first dive on the wreck, I couldn't offer much until after I saw things firsthand. The dive team gave videographer Bert Skura and I a head start so I could view the marine critters and Bert could film before the visibility was reduced by the dive team removing the net.

I immediately dropped to the floor at just over 150 feet. It was my first deep dive in about five months, and my first significant dive in about three months. I began by looking at the critters living in the net on the bottom. The question had been posed whether we should remove that portion of the net since it had become habitat for thousands (or many more) marine animals. Although I was really feeling the effects of nitrogen narcosis (one of the few times in my diving career), and my video at depth showed it, I was still able to identify what I saw. The net was well populated with brittle stars of a species (Ophiothrix spiculata) I don't see often off Catalina, but are common elsewhere in SoCal. Other critters included sand stars, sheep crabs and the usual suspects.

As I ascended, I closely inspected the hanging portion of the net... with a clearer mind since the narcosis subsided at these shallower depths (120 to 100 ft). There did not seem to be any significant large animals on the hanging portion that might die if we removed the net. I did see large swarms of juvenile rockfish swimming all over the wreck, but they did not seem to get caught in the net. However there were literally millions (maybe billions) of small encrusting forms like hydroids and bryozoa. This posed a dilemma.. do you remove the net and kill all these tiny living things to prevent the deaths of sea lions, sharks, cormorants and... oh, yes... other diving life forms like humans? If one takes the position that all life is sacred, that is a really tough call. However, I'm used to making difficult decisions (like what's for dinner ?) and recommended removing that hanging portion of the net despite the costs.

Of course the true heroes of this project are the divers that did the real work. They literally risked potential death due to entanglement in the net or decompression sickness, working as long as their tanks would allow at these deeper depths. And I'm glad that Kurt and ODA brought out the KCET crew. Environmental issues like this need a lot more public exposure, especially to non-diving audiences that would not normally see such things. It will take their support to come up with solutions for these issues. The media can be a big help in ensuring that exposure and in developing understanding.

While we were on board topside, Kurt told me that there is proposed legislation that might address the hazards posed by such wrecks. Since few owners have the resources to remove their vessels after such incidents, and the insurance companies that often become the owners afterwards do not have the will, other mechanisms are needed. The proposed bill would require commercial fishers to pay into a common fund that would then be used to clean up such potential environmental disasters. This spreads the risk and makes things more reasonable financially for fishers. After all, I eat squid too despite my limited culinary skills.

Jason and Cinde MacGugan hosted a party that evening to celebrate the work that was done, and see the video Bert and I took. I showed mine first... and believe me, it won no honors or Academy Award nominations, and may have put some to sleep. In my narced state the camera work was barely marginal, and camera issues further diminished any standing I might have had in the local community! However, Bert's video was incredible. Watching it, I wasn't sure we had been on the same dive. His camera penetrated the murk and his video lights captured the colors depleted in the water column. I developed an immediate case of "camera envy," slunk away into a corner with a bottle of merlot, and finally realized that you can buy happiness after all. Bert's underwater video rig cost ten times what mine did, but performed a thousand fold better. It has me very tempted to rob our local bank, probably several times, to get the money to invest in such a setup. Oh, wait... in these days of economic meltdown, even the banks don't have money (or so they say). Foundations that have lost fortunes due to the likes of Bernie Maddof can no longer fund the work of environmentalists like myself. I guess I'll just apply for a bailout instead. Oh, Mr. President...

© 2009 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays and on Charter Communications Cable channel 33 at 7:30 PM on Tuesdays in the Riverside/Norco area. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my DVD's (see this link). Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Squid purse seiner similar to but smaller than the Infidel, hanging portion of the net and close-up showing
complexity of its layering; diver cutting net away and another checking on their deco obligation time.

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2008 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia