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Searching for ghost pots in the Chesapeake

Every year, Chesapeake Bay watermen toss about 600,000 pots overboard to catch one of our favorite delicacies – the blue crab. But inevitably, some of those crab pots disappear. They become "ghost pots," killing millions of crabs and other marine species trapped inside.

It’s estimated there are about 145,000 ghost pots bay-wide. Some 58,000 are lost in Maryland and 87,000 in Virginia. Laid end to end, they'd stretch 53 miles. That’s from Havre de Grace to Tilghman Island in Maryland or from the mouth of the Potomac River to the mouth of the Bay in Virginia.

Over the past ten years, NOAA had been awarding grants to remove derelict fishing gear. Bay states would pay watermen to find and remove the pots during the winter. In Virginia, where dredging for hibernating crabs in the winter is no longer allowed, that meant some work for watermen.

Waterman Richard Green said he was "a little skeptical" at first.

"I just thought it was just a free for all, a give-away, just something to do," he explained. "Keep us quiet, you know; that type of thing."

But then, he says he saw something good come of the effort after they started pulling up pots and figuring out how many crabs they could have saved.

"It kind of kept us going through the winter months."

The Virginia Institute of Marine Science, better known as VIMS, says removal of the so-called ghost pots over six-years increased bay-wide crab harvests, adding $33.5 million to the industry. But money for that program has dried up and VIMS is working on other solutions, like preventing buoy lines for crab pots from being accidentally cut in areas heavily used by both commercial and recreational boaters.

Donna Bilkovic, a scientist with VIMS, says the agency will continue with removal as well as prevention efforts to end the ghost fishery that is competing with the active fishery.

For example, she says, they’re looking at a biodegradable escape panel, "so if a pot is lost that will go away and any animals captured can then get out of the pot."

Daniel Knott, who returned to the water in Virginia after 22 years as an Army helicopter pilot, has already installed the panels on his pots.

"To me it's just my way of doing a little bit, kind of like Dr. Seuss's The Lorax," he said. "Just do a little bit and every bit will count."

Knott put out 50 crab pots in the fall, but returned to find only 25.

"Some of those were probably lost due to storms," he said. "Or getting rolled around and losing a buoy or boats coming through and cutting your lines by accident or on purpose, you just don't know."

Some of his pots are covered with vinyl to extend their life in salty bay waters. But if one of them goes missing, it becomes a death trap for captured marine life. That lures more creatures into the traps and the cycle could go on for years.

"If I were to lose my buoy off of it this pot is going to sit at the bottom of the bay and catch crab, turtles, fish everything until it completely deteriorates and falls apart," Knott said.

Multiply that by all the other lost pots in the Bay and it could put a good-sized dent in the seafood industry.

For more on ghost pots and the effects of other derelict fishing gear on marine life in the Chesapeake Bay go to https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/reports/effects-derelict-fishing-gear-chesapeake-bay-assessment-report.

Chesapeake: A Journalism Collaborative is funded with grant support from the Clayton Baker Trust, The Bancroft Foundation, Michael and Ann Hankin, The Jim and Patty Rouse Foundation, The Rob and Elizabeth Tyler Foundation, and the Mid-Shore Community Foundation

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