NOAA's Marine Debris Blog

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Derelict Fishing Gear in the Pacific Northwest

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

To most residents and visitors in the Pacific Northwest, marine debris is what they see on the beautiful beaches of Oregon and Washington: items such as plastic consumer debris, commercial packaging, and even balloons. Luckily, agencies and NGOs including CoastSavers, Grassroots Garbage Gang,  Oregon SOLVE, and the Oregon Marine Debris Team have collaborated together and with the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) for years to prevent and remove this debris, much of it arriving from around the Pacific to the sparsely-populated Pacific Northwest coast. Another form of marine debris, derelict fishing gear, is less visible, but still harmful to the environment, commerce, and navigation. Derelict crab pots, shrimp traps, and lost nets and lines can entangle marine wildlife, harm the sea floor upon which they rest, pose a risk to navigation, and even threaten human safety.

Since its inception, the NOAA MDP has partnered with Pacific Northwest federal and state agencies, tribes, the fishing industry, non-governmental organizations, and academia to research, prevent, and remove derelict fishing gear. For instance, along the outer Washington coast, the MDP is working with The Nature Conservancy, whom has partnered with the Quinault Indian Nation, the Quileute Tribe, and Natural Resource Consultants to remove lost crab pots. If removal of the pot is impossible because it is buried too deep in the sand, the float line is cut and thus the entanglement hazard is eliminated. To focus on derelict nets in the Puget Sound, the MDP worked on  a multi-year removal project with the Northwest Straits Foundation, which removed over 5,000 derelict fishing nets, most of which were lost in the 1960’s and 70’s. Currently, the Northwest Straits Foundation is working with the MDP and fishermen to improve reporting of lost nets and remove them quickly. This project also developed short instructional videos for recreational fishermen, aimed at preventing crab pot loss in the first place.

Preventing derelict gear is the ultimate solution, and so the Fishing for Energy partnership has provided fishermen with reception bins to dispose of derelict fishing gear at no cost. In Oregon, Newport and Garibaldi have had bins for years, and recently a bin was placed in Westport, Washington. If not disposed of properly, derelict fishing nets can travel long distances and end up on remote and hard-to-access beaches. This is why providing a place to dispose of nets properly is so beneficial and if a net is lost, its prompt removal is very important. In Oregon, Oregon Surfrider and other organizations collaborate to respond to this type of removal need quickly.

Marine debris in all its forms is a big and growing global problem, and addressing it effectively requires good communication and collaboration on both a global and regional scale. In the Pacific Northwest, the recently-finalized Oregon Marine Debris Action Plan will contribute to reducing marine debris in Oregon, with a similar plan in the works for Washington. These documents will serve as guides to help Pacific Northwest marine debris stakeholders address marine debris effectively and collaboratively.

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Derelict Fishing Nets and the Pacific Islands

Derelict fishing nets are a big marine debris problem. These nets can entangle wildlife, create major hazards to navigation, and can damage sensitive and important habitats. Unfortunately, they can also be difficult to address as they often have few identifying characteristics. This makes determining their source challenging and makes derelict nets difficult to track.

Derelict fishing nets are a particularly large problem in the Hawaiian archipelago, due to Hawaii’s geographic location in the North Pacific Gyre and Convergence Zone and the large amounts of fishing that occurs domestically and internationally in the Pacific. The North and East Coast shorelines of each Hawaiian Island are the most impacted, due to the northeast trade winds that blow this debris ashore. These nets may come from local origin or from far-off sources throughout the Pacific, but it’s difficult to tell without identifying markers such as a specific regional style (which can often be used to determine the general source of debris like derelict crab traps), serial numbers, or writing. Interestingly, Hawaii’s main commercial fishing industry is longline fishing targeting pelagic (open ocean) species, but the majority of the nets and ropes found in Hawaii are made of trawl or purse seine types, which suggests they are likely not of local origin.

No matter where these derelict nets hail from, they create a problem in this region that must be addressed. Prevention is the key to addressing marine debris, so raising awareness about the issue and educating fishermen is important. However, since the origin of most of these derelict nets is unknown and there are already many nets that litter Hawaiian shores, removal is also a very important part of solving the problem of derelict fishing nets. Recently, the NOAA Marine Debris Program (MDP) Pacific Islands Regional staff have received an increase in reports of huge derelict fishing net conglomerates, so removal efforts are particularly important.

There are currently many groups that are working to remove this debris, including the Hawai’i Wildlife Fund, which is leading net patrols and removing debris from over 200 miles of coastline on four different Hawaiian islands through a project recently funded by a MDP Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant. Surfrider Kaua’i, previously funded by the MDP, is also active in conducting net patrols in Hawaii (check out the giant net they found!). In addition, there are numerous organizations performing beach cleanups in this area, including the State of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources; these efforts have been an excellent example of the collaborative efforts put forth to implement the Hawai’i Marine Debris Action Plan. This removed debris is disposed of properly and when possible, and recycled through programs such as the Hawai’i Nets to Energy Program.

For more on derelict fishing nets in Hawaii, check out this 2014 interview with NOAA scientists.

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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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Lobster Trap Debris in the Florida Keys: A Look Back

The NOAA Marine Debris Program 10 year anniversary identity marker.


Over the years of the NOAA Marine Debris Program, there have been many efforts around the country to rid our waters and shores of marine debris. As part of our ten-year anniversary celebration, let’s take a look back at one of those efforts in our Southeast region.


Derelict fishing gear can cause lots of problems, including damaging important and sensitive habitats, ghost fishing, and posing hazards to navigation. Unfortunately, derelict commercial lobster and crab traps are a prominent type of marine debris in the Florida Keys.

Back in 2007, the NOAA National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science’s (NCCOS) Center for Coastal Fisheries and Habitat Research (CCFHR), funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, partnered with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to research this issue. Using towed-diver surveys, they identified and counted trap debris as well as any other marine debris they encountered in the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.

A researcher surveys derelict traps during a towed diver survey.

A researcher surveys derelict traps during a towed diver survey. (Photo Credit: NOAA)

From these surveys, they found 1,408 marine debris items, almost 70 percent of which were trap-related debris! This included both ghost traps (which continue to actively fish, trapping and killing marine animals) and non-fishing traps in various stages of degradation. From their data, they estimated that over 85,000 ghost traps and over a million non-fishing traps could be found in the waters of the Florida Keys at that time. They also determined that winds likely play a role in moving derelict traps, since the surveyed trap debris was found in highest densities in coral reef habitats (a place not commonly targeted by fishermen).

Research like this is an important part in the fight against marine debris. This project helps us to understand where trap debris accumulates and thus allows us to more effectively focus removal efforts. For more information on this project, check out this old blog post, the scientific paper published from the study, and the Marine Debris Clearinghouse. For more on research projects supported by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, check out our website.

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A New Study Looks at Derelict Traps in the Florida Keys

Research is an important part of our fight against marine debris, as it allows us to learn more about the topic and be better able to target and address it in the future. Thanks to a new study by our very own Chief Scientist, Amy Uhrin, we now know a little more about derelict lobster traps and how they impact habitat in the Florida Keys. Read all about it and get the link to the scientific paper in this NOAA Response and Restoration blog post.

A derelict lobster trap frame with bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing) sits on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat.

Check out the blog post on NOAA’s Response and Restoration blog for a detailed look at this exciting study. Here, a derelict lobster trap frame with bio-fouling (most of the side slats are missing) sits on mixed seagrass and hard-bottom habitat. (NOAA)

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I Crab, You Crab, We Crab (While Properly Rigging Our Pots)!

Lots of news from the Mid-Atlantic region! First, a BIG winter storm is heading that way and we encourage all to plan accordingly and stay safe during the severe winter weather. If you need tips on how to prepare for such an event, click here. Second, once the snow has come and gone, three new projects can continue their work and collaboration to fight marine debris throughout New Jersey waters and shores. Here’s a quick look at these exciting efforts:


A "Rig It Right" kit and an example of how to use it to rig a crab pot.

“Rig It Right” kits, provided by the WeCrab project at their workshops for recreational crabbers. (Photo Credit: Jacques Cousteau National Estuarine Research Reserve; Steve Evert)

Teaming up with the NOAA Marine Debris Program, Rutgers University and partners are leading efforts to prevent derelict fishing gear and other debris from entering local coastal and marine environments. This “WeCrab” project addresses the issue of lost crab pots, which are often the result of recreational crabbers that don’t know how to properly rig their gear. To do this, the WeCrab project is hosting workshops to teach crabbers how to rig their pots right, teacher professional development trainings, and small-scale crab pot removals. Read more about this exciting project here.


Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey project leaders tag their first derelict crab pots removed in Barnegat Bay! (Photo credit: Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey)

Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey project leaders tag their first derelict crab pots removed in Barnegat Bay! (Photo credit: Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey)

The Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey is also making strides in the fight against marine debris and working with the WeCrab Project for some of its efforts. Focusing in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, this project is not only working to remove derelict crab pots, but also to better understand how many pots are lost and what their impacts are. Prevention is the ultimate solution, so in addition to removing over a thousand derelict crab pots from Barnegat Bay, this project is also conducting education and outreach activities, in part in collaboration with the WeCrab project. Check out more about this project here.


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

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

See how well things work when we work together? Another New Jersey project is working to rid its shores of marine debris, in part in collaboration with the WeCrab project. Focusing on Southern New Jersey, Stockton University, with a NOAA Marine Debris Program Community-based Marine Debris Removal Grant, is not only removing crab pots from coastal bays, but is also educating and training crabbers how to prevent trap loss and use low-cost sonar to locate and recover lost pots. Check out more about this project here.

Such exciting things are happening in the Mid-Atlantic region this year! Stay tuned to the NOAA Marine Debris Program website and blog for updates on projects in this region and throughout the country.

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The Dilemma of Derelict Gear

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)

Derelict fishing gear can create a lot of problems: hazards to navigation, damage to sensitive habitats, and ghostfishing. Ghostfishing occurs when lost or discarded fishing gear that is no longer under a fisherman’s control continues to capture marine life. This is obviously bad news for local marine animals that can end up ensnared in derelict gear, but it can be harmful to local fisheries too. That’s what scientists at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) think and set out to prove.

VIMS researchers considered that apart from the obvious financial loss of losing gear, fisheries may suffer due to competition between active and derelict gear, specifically blue crab pots. Their research and analysis, funded in part by the NOAA Marine Debris Program, evaluates the hypothesis that derelict crab pots compete with active gear by attracting target species that might otherwise be attracted to actively-fished crab pots. This reduces commercial fishery harvests and revenues and is thus a lose-lose situation for both the crabs and crabbers.

A side-scan sonar image of an active crab pot (on the left, with attached buoy) and a derelict crab pot (on the right, missing an attached buoy) in the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo Credit: CCRM/VIMS)

A side-scan sonar image of an active crab pot (on the left, with attached buoy) and a derelict crab pot (on the right, missing an attached buoy) in the Chesapeake Bay. (Photo Credit: CCRM/VIMS)

To test this hypothesis, VIMS researchers created a model that allowed them to assess fishery harvests in Virginia with and without derelict gear present. Using this model, they compared fishery harvests with derelict crab pots removed via a large-scale removal project, and a hypothetical scenario where no pots were removed. The comparison also accounted for other factors that could potentially impact harvests, such as stock abundance and environmental conditions, so that the effect of derelict gear removal could be isolated.

The results of this comparison indicated that the Virginia Marine Debris Location and Removal Program, which removed 34,408 derelict crab pots over six years, increased crab harvests in Virginia by 27%, or by 30 million pounds valued at $21.3 million for fishermen! This was the direct result of reduced gear competition and thus the improved efficiency of active crab pots. Removal was found especially effective in highly-fished areas with higher rates of pot loss. Extending their findings globally, VIMS researchers speculate that removing about 10% of derelict pots and traps could increase crustacean harvests by over 600 million pounds per year. These findings exhibit just one of the many damaging effects of derelict fishing gear.

A figure demonstrating the Virginia crab harvest with derelict crab pots removed (blue line) and without the pots removed (red line). (Photo Credit: VIMS)

A figure demonstrating the Virginia crab harvest with derelict crab pots removed (blue line) and without the pots removed (red line). (Photo Credit: VIMS)

This study and its results were accepted for publication by the journal Nature Scientific Reports (for you non-science folks, that’s a big deal), with VIMS researchers A. M. Scheld, D. M. Bilkovic, and K. J. Havens as authors on the paper. For more on these and associated efforts, check out the NOAA Marine Debris Program website.