Story by Craig Gothreaux
Photos by Gabe Giffin
Crab traps, and their bobbing buoys, are ubiquitous to the crabbing industry and the Louisiana marsh alike. This has not always been the case. Prior to 1950, blue crabs were primarily harvested with trotlines. Once wire crab traps were introduced, the fishery changed forever. Fishermen converted to traps in droves, and thanks to the increased fishing efficiency were able to fish more and more traps. Crab traps quickly dominated the fishery, and since the 1970s have contributed to well over 90 percent of annual blue crab landings in Louisiana. While a boon to the crab industry, this proliferation of traps has exacerbated problems associated with derelict traps including user group conflicts and ghost fishing.
“There’s one at your two-o’clock,” shouts the spotter. The boat idles over to the buoy, floating on the murky water. A grappling hook is hurled toward the buoy in a scene reminiscent of The Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” – minus the high seas and freezing water. Hand-over-hand, the buoy and rope are retrieved until the weight of the trap is felt. Sometimes it rises with little resistance. Not this time. The strength of two volunteers is barely enough to tie the rope to the stern cleat. The extra horsepower of the motor breaks the suction, revealing the tell-tale trail of bubbles indicating the trap is free. With the motor idled, the trap is finally hauled into the boat. With a muddy plop on deck, the group gathers to determine whether or not this particular trap is ghost fishing. Ghost fishing occurs when a derelict, abandoned or lost trap is sufficiently intact and able to retain blue crabs or other bycatch. In the case of this particular trap, the presence of an empty crab carapace and two live crabs indicates that it is indeed a ghost fishing derelict trap. However, not all crab traps are derelict, and not all derelict traps are ghost fishing.
What makes a crab trap derelict?
Derelict crab traps are basically traps that are not actively being tended. They can range from fairly new traps to crushed, barnacle-covered, mud-filled remnants. As a byproduct of the fishery, there are multiple causes for the occurrence of derelict traps. Inadvertent losses can come from the power of weather and water, to buoy lines separated by neglect, degradation, vandals, or boat propellers. Some may also result from abandonment of fishable traps by fishermen who leave the fishery, or from improper disposal of old, unfishable traps. Regardless of the origin, derelict crab traps can cause serious problems. Conflicts with user groups can be caused by traps getting entangled in shrimp nets, boat motors or fishing hooks. Beyond being navigational and safety hazards, exposed derelict traps are an eyesore to our beautiful marshes. Furthermore, depending on the condition of the derelict trap, it can continue to catch and kill blue crabs and other species (bycatch) in a process known as ghost fishing.
Ghost fishing is an unnecessary cause of blue crab and by catch mortalty. Even without bait, derelict traps still tend to attract crabs and fish which can get caught in traps that are still in functional condition. If an animal dies in the trap, it can act as bait to attract more crabs and/or bycatch, thereby furthering the recurring cycle of ghost fishing. Ghost fishing mortality depends on a set of factors, including the amount of derelict traps, season, location of traps and length of time a trap continues to fish. Ghost fishing continues until natural deterioration of the trap allows for escape holes to develop (a process that can take two years or more), or the trap sinks deeply enough into the mud that the openings into the trap are blocked. This rate of decay can vary, as heavy square mesh traps tend to break down slower than hexagonal mesh traps. Even after derelict traps have degraded past the ghost fishing stage, they can still contribute to user group conflicts.
Developing a solution
The idea for the derelict crab trap removal program blossomed from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC). An important voice in those meetings was Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) Biologist Vince Guillory, whose years of hard work and dedication have resulted in countless studies, reports and papers on the blue crab fishery in Louisiana. His efforts have helped to shape industry standards and policy, including the 1998 requirement for small escape rings on traps, which allows juvenile and sub-legal crabs to escape from both actively-fished and derelict traps. Starting in 2001, the GSMFC Crab Subcommittee began a coordinated effort to implement derelict crab trap removal programs across all Gulf States. The result was a detailed report reviewing the impacts of blue crab derelict traps and trap removal programs, which led to the development of a manual in 2003 that provided a cookbook type approach for any state agency or private group interested in starting their own trap removal program. These publications can be found on the GSMFC website (www.gsmfc.org).
To address the Louisiana derelict crab trap problem, LDWF sponsored a bill that was endorsed by the Louisiana Crab Task Force and became law in 2003, thereby giving the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission (LWFC) authority to establish a derelict crab trap removal program. By law, crab traps can only be possessed and removed by their owners (except for shrimpers that catch unserviceable traps in their gear). With a year-long crab season, the only legal method to remove derelict crab traps is during temporary crab trap fishing closures. Each year the LWFC must approve the derelict crab trap removal program, and designate trap closure dates for selected geographical areas. The trap closure time window (February 1 – March 31) coincides with a period of low winter tides (which expose more traps), traditionally low crab catch catches (which helps minimize impacts to the crab fishery), and weather conducive to volunteer participation. These announced closures of relatively small portions of Louisiana’s coastal zone allow ample time for fishermen to remove their traps from the affected waters. All remaining traps are considered abandoned, and are thus fair game to be removed under the derelict crab trap removal program. The Louisiana Crab Task Force supported this legislation and testified before the legislature.
The objective of the Louisiana derelict crab trap removal program is to provide a mechanism for volunteers from the general public to join forces with LDWF, the crab fishery and other interest groups to help retrieve and dispose of as many derelict crab traps as possible. Under the guidance of Vince Guillory and fellow LDWF Biologist Marty Bourgeois, the first Louisiana derelict crab trap removal took place in 2004. The closures and clean ups occurred in the Upper Terrebonne Bay Estuary and in a portion of Vermilion Bay. With the help of over 90 vessels and 215 volunteers (not counting LDWF boats and employees), a whopping 6,894 derelict crab traps were removed, crushed and disposed of properly. The immediate success garnered awards for the program including a first place award from the Keep Louisiana Beautiful organization, and a LDWF special achievement award for the actively involved team of 19 employees that helped set the bar of success so high for the program. This great start was followed by an equally impressive removal of 4,623 derelict traps in 2005 from portions of Sabine Lake, middle Terrebonne Bay Estuary, Breton Sound Estuary and Vermilion Bay/Cote Blanche Bay. The annual program has systematically targeted a large swath of the Louisiana coastal zone resulting in the removal of over 19,400 derelict crab traps in only eight years. More detailed information on the Louisiana derelict crab trap removal program and the results of past years can be found at www.derelictcrabtrap.net.
“LDWF is the lead agency for the Louisiana derelict crab trap removal program but the program would not have succeeded without outside funding assistance and the help of many individuals, organizations and institutions,” said Vince Guillory. No state monies were initially available to fund the program. In 2004 and 2005, funds were provided through a gulf-wide NOAA Habitat Restoration Center project coordinated through the GSMFC. “Third-year funds were obtained through my close friends and respected associates, Kerry St. Pe’ and Dean Blanchard of the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program,” added Guillory. Thereafter, the program was funded through a $5 fee on each commercial and recreational crab trap license which was dedicated to the derelict crab trap removal program. The Louisiana Crab Task Force, who sponsored the legislation for the added fee, and crab trap fishermen should be applauded for their willing financial support to ensure a permanent source of funding. Many organizations and institutions have participated in the program, including the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program (BTNEP), Coastal Conservation Association (CCA), Louisiana Wildlife Federation, Louisiana Sea Grant, and Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter’s Cooperative Extension Service. The program would not have succeeded without the cooperation of coastal landowners (who allowed volunteers on their property) and marina owners (who allowed their facilities to be used as disposal sites). Last but certainly not least are the many individuals who did the dirty work of retrieving and transporting traps or assisting at the disposal sites, whose volunteer efforts have made this program possible.
A rodeo twist
The 2012 derelict crab trap removal program included a few changes from years past, including the involvement of Julie Anderson, LSU AgCenter assistant professor and Louisiana Sea Grant Fisheries extension specialist. In an effort to rejuvenate public involvement and volunteer effort, she tweaked the format into a rodeo-style event. The rodeo format included a festival like atmosphere with prizes, food, drinks, freebies (hats, shirts, awesome crab claw pens, etc.) and a little friendly competition. There were awards for the private boats that brought in the most traps on the volunteer days, and even special prizes for the lucky boats that were able to collect one of three traps hidden in the closure area that contained a “golden crab.” Additionally, participants were encouraged to serve as citizen scientists by collecting data on the derelict crab traps they were able to round up. They were provided cameras, data sheets and identification guides, which were all used to record data about the location and condition of the derelict traps, and to quantify the contents of traps that were ghost fishing.
The first 2012 derelict crab trap rodeo was located in a portion of the Pontchartrain Estuary and operated out of the Sweetwater Marina in Delacroix. The fishing closure spanned 10 days, from February 25 – March 5, and included designated volunteer days on consecutive Saturdays. Despite cold, wet weather a large and diverse group of volunteers (176 for both days) were able to wrangle up over 1,950 derelict crab traps during the closure. The buoys and ropes were separated from the traps, and the traps were crushed (after releasing any live crabs and fish back into the water of course) and stacked into dumpsters. The flattened traps completely filled eight 30 yd3 dumpsters, which were sent to a metal salvage yard for recycling. This closure area was located downstream from the Caernarvon diversion, so the data from the citizen scientists reflected the freshwater influence in the area. Data was gathered on over 700 traps, or roughly 37 percent of the traps collected. Subsamples indicated that 75 percent were intact (capable of ghost fishing), and square mesh traps outnumbered hexagonal mesh traps by almost nine to one. In the 216 traps that contained blue crabs (30 percent), there was an average of 1.5 live blue crabs per trap. A variety of freshwater and estuarine species were observed as bycatch, the most common of which were bluegill and stone crabs with 36 and 13 individuals out of 723 traps, respectively.
The second derelict crab trap rodeo was focused on the Terrebonne Basin. Operating out of Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in Cocodrie, the closure spanned from March 17 – 27, with the volunteer day occurring on March 17. Sunny weather greeted the 93 volunteers and another 750 derelict traps were collected, crushed, and sent to be recycled. There was even a film and photo crew from Field & Stream outdoor magazine to cover the day’s effort for their “Hero for a Day program” which highlights conservation projects that turn volunteers into heroes. The video can be seen at www.fieldandstream.com/hero-for-a-day/gulf/videos. Despite good turnout, there were less citizen scientists involved at this event. As a result data was only collected from 44 traps, or 6 percent of the traps collected. This small sample size may not be representative of all the derelict traps collected from this saltier closure location, but some useful information was still gathered. Subsamples indicated about half were intact, with an even split between square and hexagonal mesh traps. Of the recorded ghost fishing traps, there was an average of 0.3 live blue crabs per trap. The two most common bycatch species observed were oysters and diamondback terrapins. The traps that contained oysters were traps that had obviously been in place for a long enough time for oyster spat to settle and grow (up to 200 oysters on a single trap), and were typically deteriorated enough to not pose a ghost fishing risk to other species. There were only a few traps that contained diamondback terrapins, but they each had 3-5 per trap (13 total terrapins collected). Although diamondback terrapins are not listed in Louisiana (regulations allow for a restricted harvest), efforts are currently being made by LDWF to evaluate ways to reduce terrapin bycatch in crab traps.
The future success of the program hinges on the continued involvement and participation of volunteers, coastal landowners, marina owners, and other organizations and institutions. The 2012 derelict crab trap rodeo was funded in part by a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, with matching funds provided through LDWF’s Derelict Crab Trap Removal account. As in the past, CCA was a large sponsor with door prizes, cook teams, and source of volunteers. Louisiana Sea Grant, Nature Conservancy, and Field & Stream also provided prizes. Members of BTNEP, commercial blue crabbers, NOAA, Louisiana Sea Grant, LUMCON, and LDWF all came out to volunteer and provide boats. It was a great sight to see so many people concerned about the health of our Louisiana ecosystems, and their willingness to use (and get very dirty) their own boats for the task. But it was not just people with boats that were getting involved. A bus load of high school students from all over the country stopped by Delacroix to offer a hand to the dock crew, who unload boats, tally the numbers (i.e., keep score), haul traps to be crushed, and stack the crushed traps in the dumpsters. The Louisiana derelict crab trap program and rodeo is always looking for more people and groups to get involved, so be sure to stay tuned for information on next year’s event (http://www.laseagrant.org/crabtraps/index.html).
Into the future
The total haul for the 2012 derelict crab trap rodeo removal program was over 2,700 traps. This brings the grand total of derelict crab traps removed from Louisiana waters to over 22,000! The derelict crab trap removal program is an integral part of the LDWF’s efforts to actively manage the crab fishery and the efforts continue to pay off. The Louisiana blue crab fishery has recently been recognized as a “sustainable fishery” as defined by the Marine Stewardship Council. This sustainable certification, the first of its kind for any blue crab fishery in the world, distinguishes the Louisiana blue crab fishery and credits the exhaustive efforts to manage this robust resource. While the crab trap rodeos present a fun, competitive way to remove large numbers of derelict crab traps, there is the somber reminder that ghost fishing is happening and these unattended traps do pose a risk. The basic fact is that as long as there is a crab fishery, derelict traps will be a consequence. However, with enough support and manpower the negative effects of derelict crab traps and ghost fishing can be minimized. The program has already had an effect, with the annual removals providing cumulative reductions in numbers and increasing awareness of the problems and solutions. Furthermore, LSU researchers are looking into ways to convert these discarded traps into an artificial habitat, such as an oyster reef to reduce erosion of the fragile marsh edges. Hopefully the Louisiana derelict crab trap removal program will continue to grow and ensure our blue crab fishery stays healthy and our precious resources remain abundant.
With the lessons learned from the last nine years, and the funding already in place for next year’s program, the 2013 derelict crab trap rodeo promises to be bigger and better than ever before. There is plenty of extension, education and outreach already in the pipeline. By reaching out to the public to explain the importance of the derelict crab trap removal program, the goal is to foster the festival atmosphere and get as many volunteers and sponsors as possible to make a significant impact. Of course there is that lofty benchmark set back in 2004 of 6,894 traps collected. It may appear insurmountable, but with just the right surge in momentum, it definitely seems beatable. After all, a rodeo is about defying the odds in the spirit of competition. The only question left is – will you be there?