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Crab pots to blame for busted ferry propellers

We’ve had seafood trucks crash and clog our roads before, but now crab pots are interrupting the state ferry system at an unusual rate, knocking out boats all over Puget Sound.

This has been a very popular crab season for fishermen but the crab season ends for most places in Washington state on Labor Day. The Washington State Ferry System is out with an urgent plea for these final few days.

“Don’t put your pots right where the ferry travels because you’re likely to lose your gear, and you could inconvenience hundreds and hundreds and even thousands of people, and cost a lot of money to taxpayers,” Ian Sterling with the state ferry system said.

Why the alarm?

Crab pots and lines have knocked three ferry boats out of service this month after their propellers and drive shafts have become entangled. The Salish, Elwha, and Chimicum have all been out, at times, this month.

“This is a little bit unprecedented at ferries,” Sterling said. “While we do see this occasionally, we have certainly not seen it to this frequency or to have it cause this extent of the damage.”

The Salish has been out for two weeks. It went into dry dock on Tuesday to fix extensive damage. Lines wrapped so far around the drive shaft, they actually damaged the engine bearings. It will be out for a few more weeks for repairs, leaving the Port Townsend run with only one boat.

The Chimicum on the Seattle-Bremerton route ran into a large crab pot last weekend, forcing it out of action for a time.

“The way that we knew that it had happened was we could hear the pot banging on the bottom of the boat as it spun around on the propeller shaft,” Sterling said.

The Elwha was knocked out for several hours earlier this month when it ran into crabbing gear near the San Juans.

“It caused all sorts of alarms to go off,” Sterling said. “We were able to get divers in the water right away. They were able to cut those lines out.”

Sterling said the ferry system hasn’t been able to put a price on the impact of losing three boats this month. The price tag to fix the Salish hasn’t been determined.

I asked the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife if there are any penalties for fishermen whose gear knocks a ferry or other boat out of commission. The agency did not respond to my calls or emails for comment, but there is nothing in the rules that designate where you can or cannot put your pots. There is one line in the online guide that reads “do not set traps in areas with extreme currents or heavy boat and/or barge traffic.”

Boaters have the responsibility to avoid buoys placed in the water, but Sterling said that can be difficult for ferry captains.

“It’s nearly impossible to avoid them all,” he said, “especially when you get into fog, the dark, or when there are waves. You may not see what is a relatively small buoy.”

Buoys are supposed to be marked with the owner’s name and address. So far, there isn’t enough evidence from any of the ferry run-ins to track back to a specific owner.

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