Derelict Fishing Equipment Haunts Bay Waters

Environmental Commentary by Carrie Madren

Camouflaged in waters around many of our rivers and the Chesapeake Bay, lost fishing gear no longer brings in seafood but continues to snag marine life. The gear — crab pots, tangled fishing line, or nets — were either abandoned or dropped from a severed line. This derelict gear poses a threat to fish, birds and invertebrates, as well as to water craft with propellers and anchors that can become entangled in line or nets.

Part of the problem is monofilament fishing line. According to the BoatUS Foundation, mono-filament can persist for 500 years in the water, accumulating at popular fishing holes. Rusted, derelict hooks can be dangerous for people who are wading or walking. Fishermen waste hours each season untangling their gear from this so-called ghost gear. For watermen, dealing with ghost line, nets and pots means more than lost time — it means lost revenue.

Ghost crab pots are a persistent problem in the Chesapeake Bay, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Crab traps become lost when buoy lines snap or a storm breaks the trap free. Some 10 to 30 percent of a commercial crabber’s pots may be lost each year to storms or propellers, according to Maryland DNR. That’s a big loss, since crab pots cost some $30 each.

Side-scan sonar surveys by the Maryland Geological Survey and the NOAA Chesapeake Bay Office revealed an estimated 85,000 ghost pots on the bottom of Maryland’s part of the Bay. Virginia surveys estimate at least 35,000 derelict traps actively ghost fishing. Whatever the staggering total number, the impact is real. Lost pots continue to catch crabs and take away from harvest-able crabs and crabs left to reproduce. Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), researchers estimate that an abandoned trap catches an average of one market-sized blue crab every four days.

As part of Maryland DNR’s Ghost Crab Pot Retrieval program, 450 watermen were paid up to $400 per day to recover and dispose of ghost crab pots in 2010. These watermen pulled some 8,000 pots or parts of pots from six areas, primarily the West, Patuxent and Patapsco Rivers. Virginia has a comparable program for watermen, who retrieved 9,000 ghost posts and hundreds of other abandoned pieces of gear for $300 per day last year; 66 watermen participated.

Recreational anglers can do their part, too, by not abandoning tangled or snagged fishing line.

To collect and dispose of such unusable — and often messy — line, BoatUS Foundation is building a national network of monofilament recycling sites near popular fishing spots across the country. Parks, groups or individuals install the bins in high traffic fishing areas and agree to empty the bins. Discarded line is then sent to Iowa-based Berkeley Conservation, where it’s melted down and turned into artificial fish habitats for lakes.

Recover any line you can, then ball it up and disposed of it in a line recycling bin. Of course, sometimes line becomes so tangled in natural habitat that to free it would wreck havoc on a micro-ecosystem. In that case, cut the line as close to the tangle as possible.

We need to take responsibility for our fishing gear, especially gear that could prove harmful to wildlife or people. Every fisherman should care about making sure that tangled lines or traps don’t end up in the water. If you stumble across an abandoned crab pot, record the date and location of the pot, noting if there are any animals trapped within. Then call Maryland DNR Fisheries or Virginia Marine Resource to report the ghost gear; these agencies have the proper equipment and know how to remove abandoned traps without causing damage to underwater habitats.

Carrie Madren writes about environmental issues, Chesapeake life and sustainable living. She lives in Olney, Maryland. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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