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Ghost pots: Abandoned crab traps are sea killers

 

News Source:  Asbury Park Press

Date:  May 5, 2017

By:  DAN RADEL

Over the winter, search and recovery teams scoured bays and rivers for a prolific killer of marine life: abandoned crab traps, also known as "ghost pots."

Very often, the teams arrived too late to prevent the pots from causing unintended carnage."In one pot we found 11 dead diamondback terrapins in it. We were able to tell that because of the remains of scutes … the back shell plates on a terrapin (turtle)," said Emily Heiser, a wildlife biologist with Conserve Wildlife New Jersey, which assisted in the removal of the traps.

All told, the teams pulled 1,379 ghost pots out of waters from Barnegat Bay to Cape May; 879 were pulled from the former.

"They (marine life) go inside looking for food because there may still be bait and they get stuck. Once they're in, there's no way out for them," said Heiser.

The turtles are listed as near-threatened species. They are protected from harvest in New Jersey and elsewhere in their range. Heiser said crabbers can help reduce the mortality caused by ghost pots by fitting turtle rings that help keep turtles from getting into the traps.


The crab pots became ghost pots innocently enough. In the ordinary case, they became disconnected from a trot line — a connecting rope used to haul them to the surface. The trot lines are connected to buoys at the surface.The pots belonged to commercial or recreational crabbers who use them to trap blue claw crabs.

Once a trap becomes detached from the main line it can drift — as a ghost might — from its location, collecting marine life along the way.  "There's some … hazards with the ghost pots as they continue to trap crabs and other species unintentionally. They're also navigational hazards," said Steve Evert, manager of Stockton University's Marine Field Station.

Evert's Stockton team was the group lead in the mission to collect the ghost pots. The work was funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Marine Debris Program.

Evert was joined by teams from Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve, New Jersey Audobon and Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey, Monmouth University, and high school students from Marine Academy of Technology & Environmental Science in Stafford.

"Some of the pots get lost because boaters unintentionally run over the lines. Others become lost because of storms. It's not that commercial crabbers are abandoning them," said Evert.

He said in many cases they are able to return the pots to the crabbers because the traps have to be tagged, pursuant to state law. A trap can cost $40 to $50. Crabbers are happy to have them returned, Evert said.

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Bottom of FoFrom December through March, the teams fanned out in different waterways to retrieve the ghost pots. They used side-scan sonar to locate the traps on the bottom of river beds and bays. The locations were then marked on a map with GPS — global positioning satellite.

The traps were then fished out of the water with grappling hooks.

Turtles weren't the only species found in these watery graves. Eels, spider crabs, lobsters and fish species like tautog were found as well. One gruesome trap entombed 50 tautog.

Some traps had been lost for a long time and had been colonized by barnacles and red-bearded sponges."I think we're making an impact with this work. We've pulled a significant amount of pots out of the water," said Heiser.

Dan Radel: 732-643-4072; dradel@gannettnj.com

 

 


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