Back in 2016, a team of scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science said watermen lost an astounding number—145,000 crab pots, leading to the deaths of millions of dollars’ worth of crabs trapped in those pots.
But a different panel of scientists says it’s not as bad as they originally thought.
Glenn Davis, who chairs the Chesapeake Bay Stock Assessment Committee, told a winter meeting of fisheries managers that the VIMS numbers are wrong.
Everything from the modeling the VIMS team used to the data and the assumptions they made "created an overestimate in both the number of pots and the number of crabs that were caught within those pots," said Davis, a crab scientist with Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources.
The committee he chairs is part of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a partnership that includes federal and state agencies, local governments, non-profits and academic institutions.
He said his panel hasn’t figured out yet just how far off the estimates were.
Kirk Havens, one of the scientists on the VIMS team and co-author of the derelict crab pot report, said there has been some discussion among fisheries managers about how much of an impact the loss of three million crabs because of the derelict pots would have on the overall crab population.
"It's probably relatively small compared to the overall population of crabs which is in the hundreds of millions," he said. "But it is a known loss of market-sized crabs that can be managed."
But once the VIMS study was out there, it was hard to take back. And sure enough, somebody tried to monetize it.
It went something like this. Havens and his team created their own solution, biodegrable panels for crab pots that would dissolve and leave an escape hole. William and Mary licensed the patent to Wade Blackwood, a W& M graduate, who is using the data to market panels.
Meanwhile, Senator Monty Mason, another W &M graduate and Democrat from the Tidewater area, liked the panels and used the VIMS data to gather support for a bill in Virginia’s General Assembly to require them. That caught the attention of Daniel Knott, a watermen who was trying out the panels.
"They all failed," Knott said. "Failed at different levels and at a pretty good cost of time and energy to fix the pots once these panels started failing."
And those panels didn’t come cheap—upwards of $1.50 per pot compared to the 10-cent plastic cull rings watermen were using.
Knott wrote several Virginia senators about his concerns, and Mason's bill, which required two panels per pot, was defeated. But the senator says he'll keep working on the problem, even if the VIMS data is off.
"When is the problem going to be significant enough for us to address it," he asked. "It's still a problem, It's not as big as we thought, but over year, after year, after year it adds up, so we need to focus on addressing it and that will come, it's just a matter of when."
Havens said Knott was given older panels that have a shorter shelf life. And Blackwood says he has a fifth generation panel that lasts longer. He's already asking watermen to test them.
"I know the data is under dispute but the data is pretty damning," Blackwood said. "Whether you lose one trap or 100 it's still a lost trap. It fishes for a certain period of time...whether it's a year or five years, it's still a problem."
Now, Mason says he won't try to force the use of biodegradable panels, but will look at incentives, such as bringing back a program that hired watermen to collect derelict pots during the off-season instead. And he’ll consider including other types of less expensive biodegradable panels, like those used in other states such as Florida, where seven different kinds are allowed.