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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'Ghost' crab pots litter bay bottom


Thousands of old crab pots are stuck in the muck at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, catching and killing fish and crabs.
It sounds like a dramatic problem for the ailing bay, but scientists are just starting to come to grips with how much of a problem it is and whether it's even worth trying to do something about it.

"We're still trying to answer the question, 'Is this a problem?'" said Steve Giordano, a fisheries program manager for the Chesapeake Bay office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The administration's staff has been working with Maryland and Virginia officials and Versar, a private contractor, to gauge the scope of the problem of derelict and abandoned crab pots and crab traps, better known as "ghost pots."

Mr. Giordano gave an update in Annapolis last night to about 30 people, a group that was split between watermen, recreational fishermen and boaters and environmentalists.

Mr. Giordano's team sampled nearly 300 areas of the bay with a side-scan sonar, which is a torpedo-shaped device that's dragged behind a boat to map the bottom of the water. Then using formulas, the team determined that there might be 42,000 ghost pots sitting on the bottom of Maryland's portion of the bay, give or take a few thousand.

That's an impressive number, but even if each and every ghost pot was killing a large number of crabs each year, it would only amount to less than 1 percent of the crab population.

Considering that the annual crab harvest often wipes out nearly half of the population, 1 percent doesn't add up to much, said Lynn Fegley, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources crab scientist.

With that in mind, waterman CJ Canby of Pasadena questioned what all the fuss was about - especially when there are larger threats to crabs, such as development and polluted stormwater runoff.

Mr. Giordano and DNR officials acknowledged that the ghost-pot problem perhaps has been overstated in some quarters. But they said it's possible that there could be some localized problem areas - for example, a mess of old pots at the entrance to a river that's important for crab migration.

Scientists also don't have a good handle on how many fish are being killed in ghost pots.

Crab pots are cube-shaped structures made from mesh, about 2 feet high per side. Watermen place bait inside and crabs scurry in, but the escape routes only allow undersized crabs to get out. In season, watermen empty their pots regularly, keeping the crabs and tossing back anything else.

But when pots sink to the bottom or drift off, there's no one to pull out the crabs and anything else caught inside.

The crabs that die in the ghost pots, in turn, attract more crabs and fish. Sometimes the white perch try so hard to get out that they scrape holes in their heads.

"We often find traps with lively white perch trying to get out," Mr. Giordano said.

There are several reasons why crab pots can be lost in the murky waters of the bay. They can get caught up in the propellers of careless powerboaters or dragged by the keels of sailboats. The winds and tides can carry them off course.

And occasionally, a less scrupulous waterman might cut loose the line that attaches a rival's pot to its float on the surface.

Several watermen at the meeting agreed they certainly are careful with their pots. It costs $30 to $35 in material per pot, plus the time it takes to assemble them.

For now, there's no plan of action for removing ghost post from the bay. Mr. Giordano said he needs to get a handle on whether removing pots would do more harm than good.

"We're not going to go out and police up 42,000 lost traps in the bay. That's just not reasonable," he said.

Pulling up ghost pots generally involves dragging large grappling hooks on the bay bottom, which can stir up sediment or ruin oyster bars. And sending divers down can be dangerous.

Plus, Gina Hunt from the DNR said legal issues need to be ironed out. In Maryland, there's not a clear legal definition of what's an abandoned pot versus what might be just a lost pot that belongs to someone. And it's not legal for regular boaters or fishermen to pull commercial gear from the water.

That said, Ms. Hunt and Mr. Giordano don't want to discourage anyone from pulling up ghost pots when they encounter them. It's a good idea, though, to contact the DNR when they do.

Not only will the scientists appreciate information about the ghost pot, but they can also make sure that the person doesn't get into any legal hot water with the Natural Resources Police.

"We don't want people to encounter problems when they're trying to do a good thing," Ms. Hunt said.

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