Program cleaning up crab traps

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Anyone who has crossed the north end of Mobile Bay on either the Bayway or Battleship Parkway at low tide in the last few years likely would have noticed the numerous crab traps that littered the shallow water on the south side of the thoroughfares.

If you drive across that area now, very few crab traps remain on those shallow flats thanks to the Alabama Marine Resources Division’s Volunteer Derelict Crab Trap Removal Program that was conducted by volunteers and sponsors recently.

Despite poor weather conditions, the volunteers were able to remove 84 derelict traps from the northern end of Mobile Bay that could have become hazards to navigation for recreational and commercial fishermen and boaters in that area.

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The Marine Resources Division (MRD) teamed up with the Mobile Bay National Estuary Program and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Marine Debris Program to conduct the cleanup.

Jason Herrmann, Marine Resources Biologist, said MRD personnel conduct surveys of derelict crab traps on the flats during low tide.

“We surveyed other areas in the upper bay and then decided on the sites that needed the most attention,” Herrmann said. “Some areas wouldn’t have but one or two traps. The count on the flats just south of I-10 and the Battleship Parkway was 109 traps, and about 100 of those were on the flats right across from the (U.S.S. Alabama) battleship.”

Using the Chocolotta Bay boat ramp as the staging area, a dozen volunteers with four boats showed up under less-than-ideal conditions.

The vessels made several trips into the designated area and managed to locate and retrieve 84 derelict traps.

“The wind was not on our side,” Herrmann said. “The tide was coming up and the wind was blowing from the southeast and covering up the traps. We strictly focused on the flats across from the battleship. I told them the weather was coming in and to get out and get as many traps as possible before it got here.”

When conditions are better, the volunteers who retrieve the traps record all of the retrievals before they come back to the boat ramp. Instead, the datasheets were filled out when the boats pulled into the protected landing.

Of course, any live crabs that were in the derelict traps were released immediately. Volunteers released 157 live crabs and found only one dead crab in the traps. Herrmann said there was no bycatch (fish or other aquatic species) in the traps.

Herrmann said there is really no way to tell how long the traps had been derelict.

“Some of the traps were in pretty good shape and some were torn to shreds,” he said. “The last time we had a cleanup was in 2010. We do the counts twice a year, and we apply for grants. We received a grant to cover this cleanup and two more through 2019. Based on the counts, we decided that there was enough to organize a cleanup.

“What we are looking for are crab pots that are visible and accessible to volunteers. There are more derelict traps out there, but they’re not accessible to our volunteers.”

Major Scott Bannon, Acting Director of Marine Resources, said the derelict traps can create a nightmare for anglers and boaters who are trying to navigate those shallow areas.

“With these derelict traps, there’s the potential for somebody to impact them with their propellers, especially at low tide,” Bannon said. “The prop can get wrapped up and could cost thousands of dollars in repairs. And if you get a trap wrapped in the prop, you’re stranded unless you can figure out a way to get it untangled. It’s happened to some of our (MRD) boats, and it’s tough to get it out.

“Additionally, the derelict traps ghost fish. They’re unidentified and underwater. They continue to catch crabs for a certain period of time. We don’t want traps out catching fish and crabs indiscriminately that aren’t being harvested.”

Herrmann said another group of volunteers helped ensure the cleanup day would be successful. Several kayakers volunteered to take PVC poles into the cleanup area and mark the derelict traps that might become submerged because of tidal activity or the southeast wind. The kayakers managed to mark more than 60 traps for removal.

“I think we did a good job given the conditions,” Herrmann said.

After the derelict trap cleanup ended, the volunteers and sponsors were treated to food and refreshments. Participants included Thompson Engineering, Alabama Department of Public Health, The Nature Conservancy, Lafarge/Holcim and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

“Holcim brought a food truck,” Herrmann said. “Normally we’ll have between 30 and 40 volunteers, so that’s what they planned for. We had food for everybody, and we had enough left over to take to the Salvation Army to distribute to the needy.”

Still in a volunteering mood, the participants decided to help with another cleanup. This time the volunteers picked up all the trash at the Chocolotta Bay boat ramp.

“We did some good for the environment,” Herrmann said. “I want to offer a great, great ‘thank you’ to all the volunteers and sponsors.”

Bannon said the derelict trap cleanup is only one of the efforts MRD has underway in the blue crab fishery, which has declined in the last decade.

Bannon said historic crab landings from 2009 through 2015 were 40 percent less than landings from 2001 through 2008. The landings from 2005 (Hurricane Katrina) and 2010 (Deepwater Horizon oil spill) were not included in the landings reports.

MRD has recommended several changes in the crab fishery in terms of equipment and a requirement to return all sponge crabs (females with eggs) immediately to the water. Bannon is meeting with representatives of the crab industry to work out the details of the equipment changes.

“The changes would include adding escape rings to allow juvenile crabs to escape,” Bannon said. “All traps would be required to have a biodegradable panel. If the trap becomes derelict or unidentified after a certain period of time, the biodegradable panel falls away and allows for free passage of crabs and fish.”

The biodegradable panel would be a 3-inch by 6-inch panel that is removed from the trap and then replaced using biodegradable material like untreated jute, natural fiber or 24-gauge or smaller uncoated wire that will rust away.

“The material for the panels must degrade over a period of time to ensure the trap will no longer hold fish or crabs,” Bannon said. “That’s especially important for traps in deeper water where we don’t have programs to recover them.”

Bannon said 192 crab fishing licenses were sold in 2016, and each crab fisherman usually sets between 200 and 400 traps, which are checked on a rotating basis.

The reason for the requirement to release sponge crabs is in response to the reduced landings over the last several years, Bannon said.

“We’re addressing some things that might be detrimental to the crab population,” he said. “Historically, the crab population has been environmentally driven. Based on reduced landings, we want to make every effort to increase the number of live crabs in the water. By releasing egg crabs, or sponge crabs as they are called, this gives us a potential population increase. That should only affect the crabbers during limited times of the year. And only about 2 to 3 percent of harvested crab would be egg-bearing crabs. That’s the reason we don’t believe it would be overly taxing on fishermen to release those sponge crabs.

“We want to increase their ability to fish, not reduce their ability to catch crabs. But we have to look at the resource over the long term and not the immediate future.”