More than 145,000 lost or abandoned crab traps may be resting on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay, according to a recent report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program. Once lost, these so-called “ghost pots” can continue to catch crabs, fish and other species, resulting in the loss of an estimated 3.3 million blue crabs each year. Though this makes up a small proportion of the total number of blue crabs in the Bay—estimated at 553 million in 2016—the study suggests that the targeted removal of derelict fishing gear could help boost commercial crab harvest.

Each year, an estimated 600,000 crab pots are actively fished by watermen on the Bay. But whether accidentally lost or intentionally tossed overboard, 12 to 20 percent of these traps are lost each year. Lines connecting traps to buoys can come loose or be cut, strong storms can relocate the gear or pots may simply be abandoned.

This lost fishing gear can continue to “ghost fish,” trapping crabs, finfish and other underwater animals. According to the study, more than 6 million blue crabs are caught—and 3.3 million of those killed—by ghost pots each year. More than 3.5 million white perch and close to 3.6 million Atlantic croaker are also estimated to be trapped each year. And derelict gear can harm sensitive habitats like underwater grass beds and salt marshes as well.

In addition to the environmental impacts of derelict crab pots, the team of researchers—which included experts from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science—looked at how abandoned fishing gear could affect commercial crab harvest. By catching crabs that could otherwise be caught by actively-fished traps, ghost pots can potentially result in a loss of harvest. The study estimates that the removal of derelict pots from 2008 to 2014 resulted in an increased Bay-wide blue crab harvest of more than 38 million pounds—valued at $33.5 million—over the six-year period.

Removing derelict pots from heavily-fished areas could be a cost-effective way to boost harvest and reduce the gear’s harmful ecological effects, the study suggests. Biodegradable escape panels, which are inexpensive and easy to install, are another option that have been successfully tested in the Bay.

The report, Ecological and Economic Effects of Derelict Fishing Gear in the Chesapeake Bay, can be found online.

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