Translate page with Google

Story Publication logo May 16, 2023

Ghost Gear: Haunting Chesapeake Bay

Street art in a London skyline

Students selected for the 12th Sharp Writer-in-Residence Program showcase their growth as writers...

author #1 image author #2 image
Multiple Authors

In 2005, researchers David Stanhope and Kory Angstadt were scanning the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. “[We were] seeing these squares on the side-scan sonar images and we didn't know what they were until we ran over one day and it got caught in our prop and we brought it up. It was a crab pot,” Angstadt recalled.

Metal mesh broke the surface of the water along with the overwhelming stench of rot from the dead marine life inside. “We found, I think, 16 crab pots […] and the next year, we went and scanned it again and there were 16 more pots,” Angstadt said. The Chesapeake Bay had become like a watery graveyard, with crab pots as tombstones.

Crab pot on the Humminbird side-scan sonar in the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS)/Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

Virginia has many ghost stories, but the ghosts found in the Chesapeake Bay are derelict fishing gear, also known as ghost gear. Without the management of a fisher, their gear continues to catch and kill marine life indiscriminately. Ph.D. Candidate James Delbene found “the average fisher reported losing 10% of all crab pots.”

As a nonprofit journalism organization, we depend on your support to fund more than 170 reporting projects every year on critical global and local issues. Donate any amount today to become a Pulitzer Center Champion and receive exclusive benefits!

Large dead fish bycatch in a newly retrieved derelict crab pot from the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program. Image courtesy of VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

In 2008 the Chesapeake Bay was declared a state of disaster by the U.S. Department of Commerce, in part due to derelict crab pots, and, as such, the winter dredge fishery was closed. The commercial blue crab fishery production of soft-shell crabs decreased by 41% since the 1990s, along with a decline of other marine species populations.

Dr. Donna Bilkovic, the assistant director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management Research, knew ghost gear in the Bay would continue killing marine life. So she and her colleagues at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) and the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) received funding from NOAA to start a Virginia derelict gear removal program. The program employed over 60 fishers continually from 2008-2012, removing over 34,080 items of ghost gear, mostly crab pots.

Dr. Kirk Havens, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management and Research Associate Professor at VIMS, recalled: “The governor came in and said there's something we can have these watermen do that could also mitigate their loss of income during the winter, but also help the blue crab population in the bay instead. We can hire them to go out and remove these pots. We will provide them with side-scan sonar and we'll train them, then they can go out using their boats like they always do. They know where these traps are—I mean, that's what they do—and [they can] utilize their skill and knowledge to try to remove these derelict pots.”

Training fishers on how to use the Humminbird side-scan sonar for the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program. Image courtesy of VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

Spatial distribution of the density of recovered derelict crab pots and associated blue crab bycatch in Virginia tidal waters. Image courtesy of Donna Marie Bilkovic, Kirk Havens, David Stanhope, and Kory Angstadt from VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program in 2014. United States.

Similar to ghosts, if derelict fishing gear like crab pots are not seen, they are not thought to exist. From participating in the removal program, fishers learned that ghost gear continues to fish for years and hurt their livelihoods. Dr. Havens recalled seeing one of the watermen from their program with the back of his truck full of derelict pots: "And I ask, 'What are you doing with those?' He said, 'Somebody threw them in the water and I had to get them out.' He wasn't getting paid for it. This was just a mindset he had […] He had the experience to recognize it was an issue, and he was trying to do something proactive himself.”

Unknown fisher who participated in the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program holding a newly retrieved derelict crab pot containing seabass. Image courtesy of VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

EC Hogge and his wife are fishers who worked for the ghost pot removal program in response to the Chesapeake Bay winter dredge fishery closure in 2008. The Hogges collected 480 pots in their first year and similar amounts in the years afterward. Mr. Hogge said, “I did not know there were that many out there. You can’t see them [derelict pots] but with sonar […] I was surprised at how many we got. So many would have died if we did not get the traps out of the water” 

EC still worries about ghost pots: “There’re still plenty of lost traps out there.” Unfortunately, the funding for the ghost pot removal program lasted for only four years, but Dr. Bilkovic has spent every year since applying for funding to continue the program.

A crab pot is a wire mesh box with several chambers that will rest on the bay floor. A center chamber holds bait luring crabs through the entrances and into the upper inescapable chambers. This crab pot has cull rings and bycatch reduction devices. Image by Kaleea Korunka. United States, 2023.

The results from the program show ghost gear can be more effective at fishing than humans because the traps will be pulled by currents to abundant areas of life and create a cycle of self-baiting. Dr. Havens explained that self-bating is when a trapped crab or fish dies, serving as bait and attracting more organisms in a continuing cycle.

Bycatch of dead crabs in a newly retrieved derelict crab pot from the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program. Image courtesy of VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

Any given pot could have zero to 46 blue crabs trapped inside. There were a total of 25,043 blue crabs found in derelict crab pots during the Virginia derelict gear program, with about 37% of them dead. Blue crabs had the highest mortality rate with an estimated 900,000 crabs killed each year by ghost gear. Economist Dr. Andrew Scheld stated this equated to an annual loss of $300,000.

Even if the crabs are not dead, the ghost pots prevent the crabs from getting caught in active crab pots. For an article with David Malmquist in 2016, Scheld stated that “VIMS’ collaborative efforts to remove ghost crab pots from the lower Bay led to an additional 13,504 metric tons in harvest valued at $21.3 million—a 27% increase above that which would have occurred had the pots stayed in place.”

Bycatch of a dead seabass and diamond-backed terrapin in a newly retrieved derelict crab pot from the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program. Image courtesy of Kory Angstadt at VIMS. United States.

A ghost pot can last 4-8 years in the bay before losing its fishing capabilities. These free-floating ghost pots tumble along the Bay floor tearing up aquatic plant life and/or oyster reefs. If crab pots become permanently stationary, they could provide infrastructure and habitat for oysters and other similar organisms. However, ghost gear will collectively do more harm than good by damaging the original habitat and continuing to fish.

Mr. Augstadt, a project collaborator, recalled, “I remember one of the guys had some of the derelict pots he just picked up […] and there were oysters growing on the wire. I asked him, how old do you think that oyster is? And he said it looks like a 2-year-old oyster and I said 'Yeah. That’s how long the pot has been down in the water.' And you know, it kind of went off in his head because they [fishers] thought that in six months, these pots just rusted away and nothing was left […] As soon as he realized that the oyster was two years old, that the pot had to be down there for at least two years, and that the entire time crabs are coming in and out and dying […] You just saw it in his eyes just kind of like 'Oh. My God, what are we doing here?'”

Oysters attached to a newly retrieved derelict crab pot from the Virginia Chesapeake Bay derelict gear program. Image courtesy of VIMS/CCRM Marine Debris Program 2008-2012. United States.

“Seeing the data from the watermen that ducks are being caught in these pots, we had some muskrats. You know everything that is in the water will go into these pots.” said Mr. Augstadt. Forty different species were found in ghost gear during the program as bycatch, which are organisms unwanted but unintentionally caught when fishing.

Diamondback terrapins, a species of turtle, are common bycatch in crab pots. “One turtle goes in, and another turtle goes and then another turtle, you know, and they just follow each other in and you get these mass mortality events. Because the turtles are inquisitive and they wonder what's happening and they find out. Curiosity killed the turtles,” said Dr. Randolph Chambers.

Dr. Chambers counting the number of diamond-backed terrapins caught as bycatch from a derelict crab pot in the Chesapeake Bay. Image courtesy of Dr. Randolph Chambers at the William & Mary Keck Environmental Field Lab. United States, 2019.

Cull rings are a preventative measure that’s installed to create a safe backdoor for small creatures to escape. Bycatch reduction devices (BRD) “narrow the opening end of the trap, so the turtles can't get in but crabs still can. But crabbers are leery as they're fearful that the largest crabs are kept from getting into the trap, and therefore they don't want to narrow the opening. They want to let everybody in. So we decided since we weren't making any headway in Virginia, with these BRDs, we said okay, let's let everyone in. But we're going to build an escape hatch on the top to let the turtles out,” said Dr. Randolph Chambers Director of the William & Mary Keck Environmental Field Lab.

Diamondback terrapin shell in the entrance of a Bycatch reduction device to show the shell curvature prevents the turtles from entering crab pots. Image by Kaleea Korunka. United States, 2023.

Cull rings are required in Virginia, however BRDs are not required on commercial and recreational crab pots due to fisher lobbying. Cull rings and BRDs cost around $2 and $3, respectively, and costs add up when installing multiple per pot on hundreds of pots. Dr. Kirk Havens, Director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management and Research Associate Professor at VIMS, has worked to create panels made of biodegradable plastic so if pots do get lost the panel will deteriorate letting organisms out. The cost per panel would be $1.50 and any royalties made would go to providing resources to Virginian fishers. “This one is truly biodegradable […] when this polymer [plastic] hits the water bacteria recognize it as food” According to Dr. Havens.

Mr. Augstadt worked on the project and said “These biodegradable panels using PHA polymers worked really well in our field trials. But the Waterman didn't like it. So even though we showed how much money they can save by putting these panels in […] because these pots aren't out there just killing millions and millions of crabs. They didn't like it, so they fought pretty hard not to put it in Virginia.” In 2018 “fishers organized to lobby the Virginia legislature and defeated a proposed bill that would have required crab pots to incorporate an escape panel that degraded if the pot became derelict [...] This bill would have increased [initial] costs for commercial fishers but lacked any incentive measures,” wrote Mr. Delbene. “Most mitigation activities […] were too costly for commercial fishers to willingly participate in.” He found fishers preferred “preventative measures that are of minimal cost to fishers, such as gear disposal locations […] or fishing gear recycling.”

Katie Morgan, the Mid-Atlantic regional coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program, is working to make cheaper solutions available to fishers through boater education initiatives to reduce line-cutting and through the fishing for energy project with Covanta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel Industries. “A dumpster can be brought to a marina […] and crabbers and other fishers have the opportunity to place their gear into that dumpster when their gear is at the end of life. That gear instead of going into a landfill [or dumped in the Bay] is then converted into alternative energy sources,” said Ms. Morgan.

The Community Scientist Removal Network, run by VIMS, has created the “Crab Trap App.” The mission of the app is to help Virginians volunteer by getting them registered to remove derelict crab pots and record their efforts.

Four bycatches of diamond-backed terrapin were retrieved from derelict crab pots from the Chesapeake Bay. Bottom right: Image by Dr. Randolph Chambers. United States, 2019. Top, bottom left: Images by Brian Scharle/USDA. United States, 2023.

In late April this year, Dr. Bilkovic finally got funding to revive the derelict gear program she started in 2008. “We are already getting lots of emails from fishers who want to participate in the program,” said Dr. Bilkovic.

“VIMS’ new Nationwide Fishing TRAP Program—’TRAP’ for Trap Removal, Assessment, & Prevention—will fund removal of the pots and traps […] and establish a Derelict Trap Policy Innovation Lab to synthesize the collected data to inform prevention and mitigation policies at the state and federal levels,” according to David Malmquist, who announced the news on the VIMs website.

“We are extremely excited, we have been working with partners across the United States. This is a chance to take a nationwide view and collect standardized information.” Dr. Bilkovic continued “This will be the only national derelict gear program in the United States, and we are honored to lead it.” Dr. Bilkovic excitedly noted this grant will keep the program running for “a minimum of four years with a potential for five years.”

Crab pots will inevitably get lost. However, mitigating steps like cull rings and removal programs can help alleviate the pressure. More importantly, supporting fishers and scientists is the best way to keep the bay healthy and ensure the Chesapeake Bay is abundant with life, not carcasses.


yellow halftone illustration of an elephant


Environment and Climate Change

Environment and Climate Change

Support our work

Your support ensures great journalism and education on underreported and systemic global issues