By: Dianna Parker
Every day, commercial fishermen around the country deploy hundreds of fishing traps into the ocean and coastal waters to land their catches. Far too often, the traps never make it back above the water’s surface, thanks to storms, tangled lines, or disturbance from passing vessels.
Now, researchers are testing innovative gear technologies and modifications to help fishermen hold on to their traps and prevent serious impacts from the derelict gear to the fishery, marine wildlife, their habitats, and the economy.
Studies show that derelict fishing gear is a widespread and persistent problem across fisheries in the United States. Lost traps are costly to fishermen, expensive to remove, and they continue catching valuable crabs and other commercial species – or “ghostfishing” – on the seafloor. Non-target species such as turtles also have the misfortune of wandering in the trap doors, baiting more animals. They eventually die without food or air.
But what if we could find a good fix, such as modifying traps so they don’t get lost in the first place, or making them easier to recover? What if traps were designed to be ineffective fishers once they become derelict? Four gear innovation projects launched last year through Fishing for Energy with funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program are trying to do just that.
The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center (SERC), South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, College of William & Mary, Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), and Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Foundation all received funding through Fishing for Energy’s gear innovation grants to test different solutions to this problem. The projects range from testing different ways to rig lines, to determining which pot design has the best crab escape rates.
At SERC, researchers in the Chesapeake Bay area are evaluating existing crab pot bycatch reduction technologies, such as side-scan sonar, and getting feedback on that technology – including which ones should be tested in the field – from Maryland watermen.
In South Carolina, the DNR is comparing different trap float and line rigging configurations by intentionally running over them with boats to see which one holds up. The pots they retrieve over the course of the project will become artificial oyster reefs.
VIMS is employing commercial fishermen to test biodegradable trap escape panels. Lead researcher Kirk Havens wrote in 2012 that VIMS created an escape panel with a “naturally occurring polymer that biodegrades completely in the marine environment.” The polymer is made from bacteria, and it disintegrates if the trap is left in the water.
The researchers are also testing whether terrapin turtles will avoid certain traps based on what color the trap’s doors are painted.
In Washington, the Northwest Straits Foundation is testing five different Dungeness crab pot designs used in the Puget Sound to determine which one has the best escapement rate. Some traps use cotton rot cords that are designed to disintegrate over time and allow the crabs to crawl out, but it doesn’t always work. The group estimates that over 30,000 crabs are killed each year in derelict pots with designs that prevent escape.
Groups all over the country are working to address derelict fishing gear, as the harmful impacts become more and more apparent. These innovative research projects are aimed at preventing those impacts down the line.
Fishing for Energy is administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and is a partnership with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc.