12 January 2012

The tragedy of "ghost pots"

Several years ago I bookmarked a story in the NYT entitled "Lobstermen will help study whether lost traps still catch lobsters."
Beneath the waters off the coast of Maine lie hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of wire lobster traps. Lost over the years to storms, boats or the knives of fishermen who have cut them from their buoys to settle scores, some of these “ghost traps” continue catching lobsters...

Marine biologists say lost and abandoned lobster, crab and other fish traps plague coastal waters around the globe, putting pressure on a number of already-troubled fish populations.

Lobstermen this winter will pull up gear from selected spots in the first large-scale study of ghost traps along the Maine coast. Other studies are focusing on lost traps off the Pacific, Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts.
I never saw the followup data, but this past week I was pleased to see a related story in the Washington Post -
For three years starting in 2008, more than 22,000 blue crabs, male and female, were found dead in ghost pots collected by watermen such as the Hogges under a federal and state program that pays for their work. Another 2,600 oyster toadfish, 950 sea snails known as whelks and 430 black sea bass were killed.

“It’s like a feeding machine,” said state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech, who recently sailed with the Hogges to see firsthand how the program partly overseen by his agency works. “Animals get stuck and can’t get out. So they . . . become bait for the next animal that comes.”..

Each ghost pot traps about 50 crabs per year, according to an estimate by the institute. The killing continues all year, even when the waters are closed to crab harvesting.

The program to remove the pots has been a success, Havens said. But it will end a four-year run when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stops funding it after this year’s haul in March...
There is at least one potential partial solution:
Virginia is trying to create a more animal-friendly pot. It would have a portal made of a plant-based polymer that dissolves if left in water for a year or more, allowing animals to escape forgotten pots.
And for those not aware of the sledge-hammer-like methods used to harvest the seafood you eat:
As he steered the boat back, Hogge had an admission about the winter dredge harvest, which involves raking up crabs that have buried themselves in the bay bottom to shelter from the cold. “That dredge is heavy when it comes down. When I drag it, I catch about three bushels of crabs. But I also kill three bushels. If it doesn’t get all the crab, it gets part of it.”
I posted several years ago about the havoc wreaked on the seafloor by bottom trawling.  I don't want to get into that again now; it's too depressing.  You can read the link if you want.

Addendum:  Reader Jared Bond notes that a successful program for removal of derelict fishing gear has been carried out in Puget Sound.
As of November 30, 2011, the Nortwest Straits Initiative has removed 4,081 derelict fishing nets and 2,668 crab pots from Puget Sound, restoring 596 acres of critical marine habitat.

Over 241,700 animals, representing more than 240 species,were found entangled in this gear. Species found include porpoise, sea lions, scoters, grebes, cormorants, canary rockfish, Chinook salmon, and Dungeness crab.
Kudos to them for that excellent work.

Second addendum:  Reader KevinM notes that Texans instituted their own project for removal of crab traps in Galveston Bay and other coastal sites, and that newly-placed traps are mandated to have biodegradable (jute) closures that render the trap ineffective over time. 


  1. You may be interested to read about what we're doing out in Puget Sound in Washington State with removal of derelict nets and pots. To date, we've removed over 4,081 nets, and 2,668 crab pots.

    It's pretty awesome how they use side-scan sonar to identify and locate the gear, then remove them. The nets are particularly destructive as they catch mammals, birds, and just about everything else.

    This is one of the flagship projects of the Northwest Straits Initiative - www.nwstraits.org

    Jared Bond
    Chair, Snohomish County Marine Resources Committee

  2. Thanks, Jared. I've appended your data and the link to the post.

  3. Trawler dragging is the most hideously destructive method of fishing in the world, save maybe bleach- or dynamite-fishing. Years ago I saw video footage of the ocean bottom on the fishing banks off Nova Scotia's south coast: it looked like a closely-packed army of bulldozers had plowed the bottom completely clean. No coral, no fish, no plants - nothing. I didn't know whether to weep or vomit.

  4. I live in the squishy tree hugger state of... Texas. We're pretty serious about fishing down here and it didn't take no uppity Feds for us to address this problem:


    BTW, all our traps have to have a biodegradable panel that will only last a few weeks:


  5. Thank you Kevin. btw, I was a Texan for 10 years in the 70s, and my dad was a snowbird in Weslaco.


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