SEATTLE – When a diver dragged a giant Pacific octopus out of the water in West Seattle last week, it sparked a push for a new state Marine Protected Area in Central Puget Sound.
It’s legal to hunt octopus in Washington, and the 19-year-old fisherman had a valid shellfish license when he captured a giant Pacific octopus at Cove 2 in Alki at about 4:45 p.m. on Halloween, said Craig Bartlett, spokesman for the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The catch limit for giant Pacific octopus – the world’s largest – is one per day, and populations of the animals are believed to be healthy.
The hunter banged two metal rods together underwater to irritate the octopus and lure it out of its lair, Bartlett said. It is illegal in Washington to flush an octopus out of its den with chemical irritants, but scaring or irritating the animals with noise is allowed.
The controversy got started when dive instructor Bob Bailey, of Federal Way, said he was arriving at Cove 2 with a student when they encountered two divers in the water. “He said, ‘Hey, are they taking an octopus?’” Bailey said of his student.
“I looked over and there are two divers dragging an octopus, and I said, ‘Maybe they found a dead one.’ And he said, ‘No, a couple of minutes ago they were punching it on the surface.’ I walked over to them and it was evident it was still alive.”
They exchanged words. And while the hunt was legal, Bailey said it shouldn’t have been, at that location.
“I don’t have an issue with hunting. People dive for all sorts of reasons. I don’t have a problem with it. It is not whether you hunt, it is where you hunt, and there are appropriate and inappropriate places to do that.
“People come from all over the world to dive here and see the octopus that live here.”
He believes the designated diving area at Cove 2 should be made a state Marine Protected Area, where fishing would be restricted. He stressed he would want the boundary drawn to include the popular diving spot, but exclude a nearby fishing pier.
Bailey went home after his encounter and posted, on dive websites, photos he and a friend took of the diver with the octopus.
“It went viral; I had over 100 emails (Thursday). I am getting emails from South Africa, Florida, Georgia, Australia,” Bailey said.
Meanwhile, Bob Davidson, president and CEO of the Seattle Aquarium, said the aquarium, which is active in helping to protect the state’s existing marine protected areas, is going to advocate for protection for Cove 2.
“It would be a very suitable addition, and we are going to start putting together the argument right now,” Davidson said. “The variety of marine life, the value it has for various communities … it is important to take a step like this.”
It would be up to the state Fish and Wildlife Commission, a nine-member appointed board, to create a new Marine Protected Area.
Giant Pacific octopus are one of Puget Sound’s most intriguing animals. Some of the biggest lurk in the depths of the Tacoma Narrows, where Bob Sizemore, research scientist at the Department of Fish and Wildlife, said a 100-pound giant Pacific octopus was once captured measuring 18 feet from tip to tip of its tentacles. That’s big enough to cover a VW Beetle.
They are charismatic animals, always one of the most popular in the aquarium, and a thrill for divers.
“You look them in the eye and they are definitely looking back at you,” Bailey said. “They understand things. Here, we get octopus the size of cars. You are staring at a big, giant animal and they are looking right back. They have personalities; some of them will tolerate you, some are curious. Some, if you stick a light in their face, will try to take it away from you.”
C.J. Casson, director of life sciences at the aquarium, said children are fascinated as the animals change color, from white to red and everything in between.
“They are the coolest invertebrate; they are even trainable,” Casson said. One octopus at the aquarium learned to unscrew a jar to get at the shrimp inside, Casson said.
Sizemore remembers well his encounters with giant Pacific octopuses underwater.
“You see other species in the water and there is kind of a glazed, staring look to their eye,” Sizemore said. “With octopus, their eyes are watching you, they are taking notice.”