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Don’t Give Up the Ghost: Ghost Pot Removal In the Coastal Bays - November 5, 2017

As this year’s blue crab season comes to a close, let’s take a moment to remember all those crab pots that we have lost this year. Whether claimed by a storm, accidentally severed by a recreational boater, or unintentionally left out, a frustratingly large amount of crab traps end up stuck at the bottom of the bay. A study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) estimates that 12-20% of the 600,000 actively fished crab traps are lost each season, and around 145,000 currently sit at the bottom of the Chesapeake. At $25-$35 a trap, that adds up fast, and can really hurt a crabber’s bottom line.

Unfortunately, those deceased traps have unfinished business. Once the traps are trapped at the bay bottom, they come back seeking vengeance as “ghost pots”, derelict specters that hurt the environment and keep pulling money out of crabber’s pockets.

The problem is, crab pots don’t stop catching crabs after they are lost or their buoys have been cut. Crabs and other animals are attracted to the pots, either to dine on remaining bait, or to hide from predators. Once trapped inside, the imprisoned creatures die, rebaiting the trap for more unsuspecting animals. Each trap can last anywhere from 1-7 years, continually killing and rebaiting itself.

This process, called ghost fishing, affects every major fishery worldwide. In the Chesapeake Bay, these derelict pots capture and kill around 3.3 million blue crabs per year, amounting to nearly 5% of the bay’s commercial harvest. That’s an estimated $2.5 million worth of crabs pulled out of the wallets of Maryland and Virginia watermen. Indeed, these ghoulish traps are indiscriminate killers, capturing and killing over 3.5 million white perch and 3.6 million Atlantic croaker, as well as numerous other bycatch species like oyster toadfish, spot, and diamondback terrapin.

The terrapin, Maryland’s state reptile, is especially susceptible to ghost pots. Recent studies have attributed terrapin population declines directly to mortality in crab pots. Last year, one ghost pot pulled from the Assawoman Bay had twenty dead terrapins trapped inside. Recreational crab pots can pose an even greater threat to terrapins than commercial pots. Recreational pots are legally only allowed to be set from private docks. This keeps the pots in shallow water, where smaller terrapins spend a large portion of their time and increases the likelihood of becoming trapped in the pots.  To make matters worse, recreational pots in the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays are far less documented than commercial traps. This could mean that there are more ghost pots lurking in the bays than previously estimated.

To combat the economic and environmental damages that ghost pots impress on the Coastal Bays, the Maryland Coastal Bays Program has been partnering with local watermen to remove this deadly marine debris after traps have been pulled for the season. In the winter of 2013-14, watermen, volunteers, and local school groups pulled over 1,230 pounds of ghost pots and marine debris from the Coastal Bays. Last winter, 55 ghost pots were pulled from Manklin Creek and the surrounding area in a single day. Dead blue crabs and trapped fish were found in many of these pots.

If you are a local waterman who is interested in participating in the Maryland Coastal Bays Abandoned Crab Pot Removal Program or if you are interested in becoming a volunteer ghost pot buster, call Sandi Smith at 410-213-2297, ext. 106, or email sandis@mdcoastaalbays.org for more information. Watermen are compensated for boating time, gas, and expenses.

Everyone who boats on the bays can help reduce the number of ghost pots. Pay special attention to buoy lines during crab season, and make sure you don’t sever any floats with inattentive driving.

If you are a recreational crabber, make sure your traps are equipped with Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRD’s). BRD’s are rectangular inserts that attach to the funnel openings of a crab pot. These devices (legal dimensions 1 3/4 inches by 14 3/4 inches) prevent large terrapins and other large animals from entering the pot, while allowing legal-sized crabs to enter. BRD’s are the most effective option available for reducing terrapin bycatch, are legally required for recreational crabbers, and do not change the number of keeper crabs your trap will catch. Many retailers sell crab pots with the devices already installed, while others sell them separately. Maryland Coastal Bays Program has a limited supply of BRD’s available, free of charge, thanks to grant funding from the Community Foundation of the Eastern Shore. If you would like free BRD’s for your pots, contact Katherine Phillips at 410-213-2297, ext. 104, or email kphillips@mdcoastalbays.org.

If you are a commercial crabber, consider installing biodegradable cull panels on your traps. When the trap is regularly serviced, the panel acts just like a cull ring, letting small crabs escape but keeping the keepers. If the trap is left submerged in the water for a few months the panel begins to degrade, making a hole large enough for crabs and other organisms to escape, and stopping your lost pot from ghost fishing. 

Whether you make your living from the blue crab or you just like the taste, it’s important to remember that ghost pots won’t just disappear. They will continue to haunt the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays until we work together to clean them up.

Simons is a Seasonal Scientist with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program  



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