Navajo Lake superintendent tackles fishing line litter

Officials set up receptacles that aim to capture the hundreds of yards of fishing line littering the shores of Navajo Lake

Renee Lucero
Special to The Daily Times
Navajo Lake State Park Superintendent Christopher Smith cleans out a monofilament fishing line recycling unit on Jan. 12 at the park.

FARMINGTON — Fishing has long been a popular hobby for Four Corners residents and has drawn tourists to the area. Fly-fishing, spin fishing and salmon snagging are all ubiquitous on Navajo Lake and the San Juan River, the latter of which is known for its nutrient-rich, insect-filled waters that maintain an even temperature year round and are home to thriving trout.

But with hundreds of anglers in the water almost every day, human presence can take its toll on surrounding ecosystems.

Fishing line litter has become a problem both locally and nationwide. Anglers most often use a monofilament line, another name for single-strand, high-density, nylon fishing line used on fishing reels and in the manufacturing of fishing nets, according to the BoatUS Foundation for Boating Safety and Clean Water.

Monofilament line can take hundreds of years to disintegrate. With rapidly fluctuating water levels, Navajo Lake is especially susceptible to consuming line left on the shore. Once in the water, the line can harm marine life such as fish, beavers and otters, as well as children, dogs, scuba divers and other visitors. It can also lead to costly boat repairs if it gets caught in rudders or propellers.

Navajo Lake State Park Superintendent Christopher Smith shows s bundle of fishing line he pulled from a monofilament recycling bin on Jan. 12.

One man hoping to tackle that problem is Christopher Smith, who in November became superintendent at Navajo Lake State Park. Smith has led a charge against the errant fishing lines since he began working at the park, first as a marine enforcement officer and later as a park law enforcement manager.

He began his efforts by following guidelines set forth by BoatUS Foundation, a boating safety nonprofit whose website includes instructions for building monofilament line receptacles. The organization also provides stickers and signage to accompany the receptacles.

A monfilament recycling bin is pictured Jan. 12 at Navajo Lake State Park. Park Superintendent Christopher Smith has led a charge to get more anglers to recycle their fishing line.

The foundation has a network of more than 2,000 monofilament line recycling bins that receive line in person and by mail. Recycling the line is preferred over placing it in a trash bin because the line can continue to damage wildlife and ecosystems in landfills.

Smith created the first two recycling receptacles using materials he bought himself. He then donated the receptacles to Navajo Lake State Park. After he was promoted to park superintendent, he took the project to a new level by seeking private and corporate donations of both money for new receptacles and already made receptacles.

"Once I became the park superintendent and moved to that side of the park near the San Juan River, where there is lots of fishermen and lots of monofilament line, I realized this was an effort too big for just me," Smith said. "I started with the San Juan Fly Fishing Federation, and they really bought into the idea of the receptacles. We’re always looking for more local sponsors."

Navajo Lake State Park Superintendent Christopher Smith removes trash and fishing lines from a recycling bin on Jan. 12 at the park.

Hundreds of yards of monofilament line regularly litter the shores of the lake, but Smith says the amount increases after the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish's salmon snagging season, which starts Oct. 1 and runs through the end of the year. The style and techniques of salmon snagging make the line more susceptible to break. Fishermen cast and quickly reel in a weighted hook that often becomes lodged in rocks or catches on the lake bottom.

"Lines breaking is just a part of fishing," Smith said."“But we do see an increase in the salmon snagging season because of the influx of people. You are expected to pick up any broken line, and some people do, but that’s not always the case. We do our best, as far as our officers, to pick up the line, but it’s really an effort that needs the support of the anglers, our park rangers, volunteers and our season laborers."

The Angler’s Code in the Game and Fish Department's annual fishing rules and information booklet states, "never leave behind trash, including discarded fishing line. ... Always leave a fishing site as clean or cleaner than it was found."

The code, however, is not enforceable. The only possibility for holding violators responsible for leaving behind lines would to be to charge them with littering. For that to happen, the person would have to be caught in the act, according to an email from Cheryl Moline, the Northwest region manager for New Mexico State Parks. And that is extremely difficult for park staff who are responsible for monitoring miles of river banks and lake shores.

Mikal Deese, founder of On A Wing And A Prayer, hold Fisher shortly before the great horned owl's release on Sept. 30 at Wines of the San Juan in Blanco.

Last year, a great horned owl was rescued from a tree at the park, where it got tangled in fishing line and was injured. The owl, named Fisher, was rehabilitated at On a Wing and a Prayer, a Corrales-based wild bird rehabilitation center.

Once rehabilitated, Fisher was released back into the wild from Wines of the San Juan winery in Blanco, which was contacted when On a Wing and a Prayer was looking for a release location.

"We agreed because we cared about nature, and it’s the neighborly thing to do and the animals, the bird and the fish are our neighbors," said Brittny Arnold, who handles marketing for the winery. "We also thought maybe it would help raise awareness for this issue and, although we don’t hope for more birds to need (rehabilitation), we hope if they do, we can be a part of more of these ceremonies."

Renee Lucero covers the outdoors for The Daily Times.