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Marine Debris Research: Ecological and Economic Assessment of Derelict Fishing Gear in the Chesapeake Bay

By: Amy Uhrin, Chief Scientist for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

The Chesapeake Bay blue crab fishery accounts for 50% of the United States blue crab harvest, and is worth about $80 million annually. It’s estimated that about 600,000 crab traps (also called “pots”) are actively fished on an annual basis in the Bay. Some crab pots become lost (derelict) when the pot’s buoy line becomes detached or cut, either by vessel propellers, faulty lines, or vandalism. Strong storms can also move pots from their original deployment location, making them difficult to relocate. In addition, pots may be abandoned, as has been observed at high rates in some regions of the Bay. Once lost, derelict pots can damage sensitive habitats and continue to capture blue crabs and other animals, often resulting in their death. To assess the ecological and economic impacts of derelict blue crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay, a diverse team of researchers from CSS-Dynamac, Inc.; Versar, Inc.; the Virginia Institute of Marine Science; and Global Science & Technology, Inc. recently completed a comprehensive Bay-wide assessment, funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

A derelict drab trap.

Blue crabs are harvested using rigid, cube-shaped wire traps that are galvanized or vinyl-coated. Here, diamondback terrapins can be seen inside a standard pot. (Photo Credit: CCRM/VIMS)

This study estimates that some 145,000 derelict crab pots exist in the Chesapeake Bay, with 12-20% of actively-fished pots becoming lost each year. Not surprisingly, many derelict pots are found in areas of the Bay with heavy recreational and commercial boat traffic or fishing activity. These derelict pots kill over 3.3 million blue crabs annually. In addition, many other economically-important species can be impacted, such as white perch (3.5 million captured annually) and Atlantic croaker (3.6 million captured annually). Derelict pots thus “compete” with pots that are in active use —they catch or attract crabs that could otherwise be caught by active pots, and can therefore reduce commercial harvests.

Map of Chesapeake Bay with colors indicating density of derelict pots.

The predicted spatial distribution of derelict crab pot densities in Chesapeake Bay. (Photo Credit: CSS-Dynamac, Inc.; Versar, Inc.; Virginia Institute of Marine Science; and Global Science & Technology, Inc.)

Through statistical modeling, this study found that targeted derelict crab pot removal programs greatly increase the number of crabs caught by actively-fished pots, resulting in significant economic benefits for the fishery. The model estimated that derelict pot removals increased Bay-wide crab harvests by over 38 million pounds over a six-year period (2008 to 2014), amounting to $33.5 million in added revenue (in 2014 dollars). This study also found that pot removals are most effective when they focus on areas with intensive crab fishing activity.

This study also suggests management actions that may help in reducing the number of new derelict pots and their associated negative impacts. These include minimizing boat traffic in popular crabbing areas and educating boat operators about avoiding active crab pots, which would help reduce the number of cut buoy lines. Creating and maintaining derelict pot recovery programs, or incentivizing watermen to remove lost pots, would also help reduce the number of derelict pots in the Bay. In addition, outfitting crab pots with biodegradable “escape hatch” panels would reduce mortality of captured animals.

In addition to the Chesapeake Bay assessment, the team also created a Guiding Framework for derelict fishing gear assessments, which can be applied to other fisheries and/or regions interested in conducting similar studies. The final report for the Chesapeake Bay Assessment and the Guiding Framework document can be found on our website.

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Lost Crab Pot Removal by the Quileute Indian Tribe

By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

“Come aboard, I’ll show you the boat,” said Lonnie Foster, a tribal leader with the Quileute Indian Tribe, and fisherman from a young age. The three of us— Kara Cardinal (Project Manager with the Nature Conservancy), Jennifer Hagen (Fisheries Biologist and Project Manager for the Quileute Tribe), and myself (representing the NOAA Marine Debris Program)— climbed aboard Lonnie’s boat, the F/V C.F. Todd, docked at the marina in La Push. We got a quick tour of the boat and the crabbing gear aboard.

When it comes to crab fishing, Lonnie has seen a lot: massive storms and monstrous waves (the height of the Dungeness crabbing season is in the stormy dead of winter), ocean currents so swift that they pull the crab pot floats under the sea surface, and of course, lots of lost crab pots. No fisherman wants to lose pots— they’re expensive. However, the Dungeness crab fishery, well-managed and sustainable otherwise, loses pots frequently— possibly up to 10% of the total average 100,000 pots fished in Washington State every year. That’s a lot of lost pots.

Jennifer and Kara with a stack of recovered crab pots.

Jennifer and Kara with a stack of recovered crab pots. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

This is why Lonnie, as well as other Quileute Tribes fishers, are part of a project to survey and remove lost crab pots in the fishing area of the Quileute Tribe. A collaboration of the Nature Conservancy, The Quileute Indian Tribe, and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, the project will use local knowledge on the location of lost crab pots, augment it with aerial surveys using a small aircraft to spot lost pots, and employ tribal fishers to recover the pots. Recovered crab pots in good shape will be reused, and non-usable pots will be recycled or disposed of.

A view of the La Push Marina.

A view of the La Push Marina. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

Most importantly, the Quileute Indian Tribe, like the Quinault Indian Nation which is involved in a similar project, is committed to addressing crab pot loss beyond this one project. The Tribe will develop its crab pot prevention, reporting, and removal program to help make a difference and reduce the number of lost crab pots out in the ocean.

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Fishermen Take the Lead in California Removal Efforts

Marine debris is a pervasive problem and unfortunately, our golden state on the west coast is not immune. However, the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) is supporting some innovative projects that are actively addressing this problem. To give you a cool example, California is the site of a nifty marine debris removal project that started last summer.

Led by the SeaDoc Society at the University of California, Davis and working with area fishermen, this project in Northern and Central California is working to fight a big debris problem: derelict crab traps. Derelict traps can cause all kinds of problems for marine life, recreational boaters, and for fishermen. Apart from losing expensive traps, the fishery suffers as derelict traps continue to capture crabs that could otherwise be caught by an active fisherman (a concept known as ghost fishing). To address this problem, commercial fishermen are going out during the closed crabbing season to recover lost pots.

A boat full of derelict crab traps collected by commercial fishermen.

The F/V Maureen full of derelict crab traps collected by commercial fishermen, including boat owner Bob Maharry . (Photo Credit: The SeaDoc Society)

These fishermen are collecting over 750 derelict crab pots, effectively restoring over 8,000 square feet of seafloor habitat, and then doing something pretty cool with them: selling them back. The fishermen sell the pots they recover back to the Humboldt Fishermen’s Marketing Association (HFMA), who then sells them to their original owner at a fleet-agreed price per trap. The proceeds are what fund the project the following year.

This project is building off a past effort supported by the MDP and its goal is to become self-sustaining so that it can continue as long as it’s needed. For more on this project, check out the project profile on our website.

Keep your eyes on our blog for more on our California region this week!

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New Jersey Event Highlights Derelict Crab Pot Removal Efforts

On Friday, February 26th, the NOAA Marine Debris Program and its partners held an event in Waretown, New Jersey, to highlight an exciting derelict crab pot removal effort in Barnegat Bay. The event highlighted a project, led by the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey and supported by a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal grant, which is working to identify, retrieve, and inventory over 1,000 derelict crab pots from Barnegat Bay, N.J.

Covanta partnered with the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey to provide two bins for collecting the retrieved derelict gear, to then haul and dispose of at their waste-to-energy facility. Covanta is part of Fishing for Energy, a partnership between the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Covanta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel Industries. Through this unique partnership, bins to collect old, damaged, and derelict fishing gear have been placed at 44 ports in nine states and over 3 million pounds of gear have been collected and recycled.

The event offered an opportunity for media, congressional staff, and interested local residents to see first-hand how this project works to improve New Jersey waters. These types of events are important to raise public awareness of the marine debris issue and educate local communities about what can and is being done about it.

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What’s Up With Derelict Crab Pots?

Derelict crab pots have recently been popping up in the media, and you may be wondering, “what’s up with all these crab pots?” Well, derelict pots are numerous in heavily fished waters and can create all sorts of problems for both the habitat where they are found and the local economy. Recently, there have been many efforts that are taking advantage of closed crabbing seasons to remove some of these derelict pots and learn more about them.

Derelict crab pots are a big problem for many coastal areas. These traps that have been lost, abandoned, or discarded into the marine environment end up there in a variety of ways. Oftentimes, crab pots are lost after bad weather, being improperly set up, or from lines being inadvertently cut from passing vessels. Once a crab pot becomes derelict, it can start to wreak some havoc. Not only can derelict pots become navigational hazards or damage sensitive coastal habitats, but they can also result in a phenomenon called “ghost fishing.” Ghost fishing occurs when derelict fishing gear continues to capture marine life, a catch that ends up going to waste and often results in the mortality of whatever organism was captured. This often also translates to economic loss, a connection that was recently explored in a newly published study by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS).

A boat full of derelict crab pots. (Photo Credit: Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM)/VIMS)

Derelict crab pots can be damaging in many ways. (Photo Credit: Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM)/VIMS)

This VIMS study details how fishermen can suffer economic losses associated with derelict crab pots. As derelict pots remain in local waters, they continue to capture marine organisms, including harvestable crabs. These crabs go to waste and, having already been captured by a derelict pot, can no longer be caught by professional crabbers who rely on such catches for their livelihood. By removing derelict pots, these financial losses can be avoided. For more information on this study, check out this blog post.

Derelict crab pots are removed from coastal waters in New Jersey. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Zimmermann, Stockton University)

Derelict crab pots are removed from coastal waters in New Jersey. (Photo Credit: Elizabeth Zimmermann, Stockton University)

To avoid these financial losses and other negative impacts associated with derelict crab pots, there are many efforts underway to remove them. Three new projects in New Jersey aim to both remove derelict pots and educate the public about how to avoid losing pots in the first place. Check out this blog post to learn more about these projects. In Louisiana, derelict crab pots are such a big issue in the New Orleans area that the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries is hosting two “Derelict Crab Trap Rodeos.” These are day long events during which volunteers work to remove derelict crab traps from local waters. The first event is this coming Saturday, February 13th, so if you’re in the area, stop by and help remove some derelict pots! But don’t worry if you can’t make this one, you’ll get a second chance at the next event on February 20th. For more information on this project, check out our website.


The Remarkable Results of the Crab Pot Escapement Study

By: Nir Barnea, Pacific Northwest Regional Coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program

Every year, about 12,000 crab pots are lost in the Puget Sound, mostly from recreational fishing. These lost pots can continue to capture marine life, a process called “ghostfishing.” Recreational crab pots may come in different models and designs, but all have an escape mechanism to allow trapped crabs to escape from the pot if it is lost. But— are all escape mechanisms equally effective? If not, can simple modifications make them more effective and decrease the ghostfishing problem?

An elegantly designed and collaborative study tested these questions. Thirty crab pots, representing ten commonly-designed recreational Dungeness crab pot models, were placed in water tanks at NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service facility in Mukilteo, near Seattle. Dungeness crabs were individually tagged (a total of 350 crabs were used!) and were placed in the pots. Food for the crabs was placed outside the pots, adding extra incentive for the crabs to escape. The escape mechanism was then activated (by cutting an escape cord which would disintegrate if left in the water for a period of time) and the number of crabs escaping from the pots was tracked daily for two weeks. The study was repeated three times.

The results were remarkable. In two models, nearly 100% of the crabs trapped in the pots escaped after the escape mechanism was activated. Another model allowed nearly 90% of the crabs to escape. But in the other three models, only 10% or less of the crabs escaped. Even two weeks after the escape mechanism was activated, 90% of the crabs remained trapped in those models. The study then explored modifications to increase escapement rates. The great news is that after implementing simple modifications and repeating the escape experiment, all pots achieved the desired nearly 100% escapement rate.

The study, a Fishing for Energy Partnership grant managed by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation with funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program, was led by the Northwest Straits Foundation, in partnership with Natural Resource Consultants, NOAA Fisheries, and the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. The results were shared with state agencies, and hopefully will contribute to gear modification and improvements of crab pot design and their escape mechanisms, and in a larger sense, reduce the mortality of crabs and other species associated with the loss of crab pots in the Puget Sound and elsewhere.

For additional information please contact Joan Drinkwin (, Kyle Antonelis (, or Nir Barnea (


For more information on this project, visit the project profile page on our website.

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National Fishing and Boating Week: An opportunity to prevent marine debris!

In celebration of National Fishing and Boating Week which begins today, the NOAA Marine Debris Program is sharing a few fishing gear-focused projects, partners, and papers. Wildlife can become trapped or entangled in fishing gear and this “derelict gear” (fishing line, nets, and pots) may continue to capture fish and other marine species while at sea but you can help.

We want you to have a successful and marine debris free week so we’ve included a handful of tips you can use while out enjoying the great outdoors (streams, rivers, lakes, and ocean).

crab entangled in derelict net

crab entangled in derelict net

When fishing, make an effort to:

– Retrieve line/gear when it is caught or tangled

– Find a fishing line recycling bin

– Ask local bait shops if recycling is available

– Dispose of fishing line properly


This may not seem like a big deal but fish, turtles, birds, and other wildlife can be spared an unpleasant encounter with fishing gear if you take the time to ensure its proper disposal.

A preventable problem with big impacts and simple solutions!