Bay Watermen Clean up ‘Ghost’ Crab Pots

By Cheryl Costello

It’s the wrong time of year for a bushel of Chesapeake blue crabs, but watermen are out pulling crab pots for another important reason. In a joint project, Baltimore County, the Oyster Recovery Partnership, and local watermen are using side-scan sonar to locate and retrieve lost and damaged crab pots and fishing gear from the bottom of the Bay. They aim to remove some 2,000 of these “ghost pots” that are littering the Bay and trapping aquatic life.

Captain Bob Wiley brought Bay Bulletin out to the mouth of the Patapsco River to show us the winter work underway: recovering the ghost crab pots that are lost during storms or accidentally cut loose by boat propellers.

“When we set new gear out each year, if it hooks into that older crab pot sometimes you’ll lose your newer gear,” explains Wiley. He speaks from experience, with 45 years on the water.

Baltimore County partnered with Oyster Recovery Partnership (ORP) since the oyster organization is familiar with using side-scan sonar for restoration efforts.

The sonar imagery indicates there are approximately 3,000 crab traps in just one area of the Bay bottom. It is a sizeable project—they have about 2,000 acres to cover. More than a dozen boats were out the day we joined in.

The pots can be heavy and tough to grab, so project leaders are hoping to get at least 50 percent of the existing pots out of the water.

“They hook onto the wire or mesh of the pot or gear that’s out there. Once they hook onto it, they’ll kind of feel tension on the line and then they’ll be able to pull that pot in,” says ORP Coastal Resource Scientist Jen Walters.

A grant from the county allowed ORP to hire the watermen during their slow season.

“We’re using Chesapeake Bay Critical Area Fee in-lieu money paid by developers for their projects … a little bit of county money, but most of it is fee in-lieu money from the developers,” says Baltimore County’s environmental department director David Lykens.

What’s so bad about ghost pots? Brian Schneider, president of the Marine Trades Association of Baltimore County, says the old pots hurt fisheries in a local area. “The fish will swim in, can’t get out, now the crabs go in to eat the fish and all these creatures can’t get out. So we lose a lot of our crabs and fish in these thousands of crab traps that are out there.”

As they’re collected, the crab pots go into dumpsters. Some will be recycled if they can be, or returned to their owners if markings on the pot indicate who it belongs to.

“It’s in our collective social, but also economic, interest to make sure we’re putting forward resources to preserve and protect the Bay and its tributaries,” says County Executive Johnny Olszewski.

It’s a win-win way to clean up the Bay and give watermen more work ahead of the approaching crab season.

“I’ve been working for the county for 35 years and this is my favorite project that I ever worked on,” says Lykens.