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Southeast Region: Marine Debris Research

By: Leah Henry

The South Carolina Department of Natural Resources tests the effectiveness of different float configurations to reduce or prevent derelict crab traps. Recovered crab traps will be used to create oyster reef habitat that will promote new reef development.

To learn more about this marine debris research project visit our website.

This project is part of a Fishing for Energy gear innovation grant, administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program.

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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!


Spotlight: Ghost Trap Recovery and Research Ramped Up Across the Country

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, these traps are lost because of storms, tangled lines, or disturbance from passing vessels, and fishermen have few resources to retrieve them.

While the traps sit on the bottom, crabs, lobsters, fish, and even turtles enter the traps and have no way of getting out. They often die and become bait for other animals to enter the traps. This is called “ghost fishing” and it is impacting fisheries and habitat across the country.

The NOAA Marine Debris Program is funding gear modification research and trap removal projects, in order to help fix this problem. Here are a few recent and on-going efforts:

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Innovative Research Aims to Prevent Derelict Fishing Trap Impacts

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.

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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.


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New Report: Detecting Marine Debris At Sea

By: Marine Debris Program staff

Imagine this common scenario: you’re looking into the horizon over the ocean, and you have just spotted an object in the distance. It’s faint and you know something is there, but you can’t quite make out what it is. Chances are, unless you get closer, you may never know exactly what you saw.

This is just one of many challenges scientists and responders face when detecting marine debris in the open ocean, according to a report published today by the NOAA Marine Debris Program. The report is a review of the debris detection efforts that took place in the years following the earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011, as well as valuable lessons for the future of marine debris detection.

Federal, state, and local partners focused on finding JTMD through several detection methods, including observations from aircraft, unmanned aircraft systems, vessels, shoreline observers, and satellites. NOAA paired detection with modeling in order to focus detection resources on areas where the debris was most likely to be located, given the large area of ocean where the debris dispersed.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

A boat from Japan observed by mariners in the North Pacific is towed to land. Credit: P. Grillo.

While there was significant involvement and engagement from the public and agencies at the federal, state and local level in finding JTMD, many of the lessons-learned illustrated the significant challenges and limitations that come into play when searching for diverse objects in a very large area of the ocean. The report explores each detection method used during the response, as well as the limitations of each method and possible actions to overcome the limitations.

Because of the extensive efforts and renewed interest in at-sea detection during the response, the marine debris community learned more about marine debris’ behavior and movement and has advanced the state of knowledge on detection of debris at-sea.

Read the full report.

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Evaluating Techniques to Reduce Crab Trap Float Loss in South Carolina

By: Sarah Latshaw

Boat strikes, which can destroy floats and cut crab trap lines, can lead to derelict crab traps. Derelict crab traps – crabs traps that become lost or abandoned – are a threat to wildlife, can degrade habitat, and become a navigation hazard. These traps may “ghost fish” for years, capturing and killing prey like crabs, diamondback terrapins, and many fish species. Many groups have worked to reduce the number of derelict crab traps through removal efforts, but some projects – like the one I observed – aim to prevent crab traps from becoming derelict in the first place.

As a former field biologist, I was excited to get out of the office to check out the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) study on crab trap float loss. Supported by funding from the NOAA Marine Debris Program and National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the goal of this study is to identify the float rigging designs that can prevent loss of crab traps from boat strikes, as well as conduct surveys to better understand a commercial crabber’s trap loss rate.

Often teased as being over prepared – I decided to pack light instead for the supposedly warm, sunny day out on the water. Soon after hopping on the boat, however, the downpour began. We motored back to the marina and took shelter until the rain slowed. While the researchers pulled out their rain coats and pants I, kicking myself for leaving my gear behind, embarrassingly donned a clear, plastic $2 poncho I found in my car. Rookie mistake for an old-hand.

Once the rain slacked off, we headed to the research site on the Stono River near Charleston, SC to test the durability of the crab trap floats riggings the researchers assembled. Some floats were round and made of polystyrene foam that seems to explode into pieces when hit by a boat propeller. (Don’t worry, the biologists work diligently to remove all float debris from the river).   Other floats were the shape of bullets and made of a spongy-type foam that seems to slice apart but not explode when hit by a boat propeller. Additionally, some float configurations had PVC to protect the line added above the float or below the float, and some had no PVC at all.

So what float configuration works best at preventing lost traps? That’s exactly what researchers at the SCDNR are trying to figure out. During my visit SCDNR evaluated multiple float configurations, by attaching each float rigging to a 10 lb. weight and then running over it with their boat at high speed. Every time the researchers ran over a buoy, they documented damage to the float and line.  They continued to run over the floats (and documenting the damage) until each float had been run over 30 times, or until the float was no longer functional or attached to the line.  Any debris left by the float was immediately cleaned up.

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From their findings, SCDNR researchers will produce recommendations for recreation and commercial crabbers on float configurations that reduce crab trap loss.  Moreover, results from the survey will help characterize the annual crab trap loss rates in South Carolina.  The project is ongoing – stay tuned for results from their findings in the coming year.


New economic study shows marine debris costs California residents millions of dollars

By: NOAA Marine Debris Program staff

Southern California residents lose millions of dollars each year avoiding littered, local beaches in favor of choosing cleaner beaches that are farther away and may cost more to reach, according to a new NOAA-funded Marine Debris Program economics study.

Reducing marine debris even by 25 percent at beaches in and near California’s Orange County could save residents roughly $32 million during three months in the summer by not having to travel longer distances to other beaches.

The study, led by Industrial Economics Inc., known as IEc, is the first of its kind to look at how marine debris influences decisions to go to the beach and what it may cost. Given the enormous popularity of beach recreation throughout the United States, the magnitude of recreational economic losses associated with marine debris has the potential to be substantial.

We found that:

  • Orange County residents are concerned about marine debris, and it significantly influences their decisions to go to the beach. No marine debris on the beach and good water quality are the two most important beach characteristics to them.
  • Avoiding littered beaches costs Orange County residents millions of dollars each year.
  • Reducing marine debris on beaches can prevent financial loss and provide economic benefits to residents.

For more information and to download the study, please visit our website. 

Which beach characteristics are important to OC residents, by percent. MD-econ_graphic1__large


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