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Old crab pots a danger to boaters, crabs, fish

By PAMELA WOOD, Staff Writer
The Capital, Published 03/06/10

Paul W. Gillespie — The Capital Watermen Fred Gieseker, left, and Mike Edwards pull in a ghost crab potwhile dredging aboard the Miss Renee II. They’ve been hauling up 15 to 20old pots per day while working on the ghost pot project for the state.

SLIDESHOW: Ghost pots
The state has hired hundreds of watermen to search the bay for "ghost" crab pots; abandoned or lost on the bottom of the Chesapeake.

What Mike Edwards pulled up from the depths of the Chesapeake Bay with a dredge was not the sort of prize watermen are usually looking for.

Dangling from a hook on the dredge bar was a busted-up old crab pot, covered in mucky sediment with a fish flopping around inside.

But that old crab pot was just the target that Edwards and fellow waterman Fred Gieseker were looking for at the mouth of the West River, along with about a dozen other crews.

Hired by the state and paid for with federal money, the watermen are trying to rid the bay bottom of trashed old crab pots, dubbed "ghost pots."

"It takes a couple days to get the hang of this," Edwards said. "It's likeanything - the more you do it, the better you get."

Dredging for the ghost pots can be hit-or-miss.

"You can ride around and catch two or three real quick, and then ride around and not catch any," Gieseker said.

Edwards and Gieseker modified the patent tong rig on Edwards' boat, Miss Renee II, to dredge for the crab pots.

Instead of attaching a mesh bag to the horizontal dredge bar, three multi-pronged hooks were attached.

Other watermen with smaller boats dragged lines studded with hooks behind their boats, hauling them in by hand - a much more difficult task.

The watermen used maps provided by the Department of Natural Resources with scores of little yellow dots showing possible crab pots. Teams from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Versar used side-scan sonar technology to spot crab pots on the bottom.

Edwards said from Thomas Point to the West River, there might be 1,000 pots littering the bottom.

The work is muddy and messy, but is welcome for watermen entering a slow time of year.

Oystering season runs through the end of March, but it tends to tail off as demand and prices drop as the weather warms. Crabbing season opens April 1, but it usually takes some time before crabs start moving around after their winter slumber buried on the bay floor.

The ghost pot project also offers a change of pace after months of cold drudgery harvesting oysters.

"You always want to change," Edwards said.

The watermen are paid $400 per day plus $150 if they have a helper on board.

Edwards said he's probably making out better plucking the crab pots out of the bay than oystering.

But he said he's definitely earning his government pay on this five-day job: "We're working for it. It's a dirty job."

Waterman J.R. Gross, the crew chief for the project in the West and Rhode rivers, called it "a job-and-a-half."

In the past few weeks, more than 360 watermen have pulled more than 1,500 ghost pots from the water: 350 in the Patuxent River, 350 in the Patapsco River and 850 in the West and Rhode rivers.

If the pots are salvageable, they're recycled. Otherwise, they're trashed. Edwards and Gieseker saved the "irons" - the square rebar frame at the base of a crab pot - to give to other watermen to re-use in new crab pots.

Crab pots are cube-shaped structures made from mesh, about 2 feet high per side. Watermen place bait inside and crabs scurry in, but escape routes only allow undersized crabs to get out. In season, watermen empty their pots regularly, selling legal crabs and tossing back anything else.

But when pots sink to the bottom or drift off, there's no one to pull out the crabs and fish inside, so they die. Crab pots can survive about two years under water before breaking apart.

Crab pots can get lost in the bay when their lines get tangled in boat propellers or storms carry them off course. Occasionally, an unscrupulous waterman might cut loose the lines on a rival waterman's pots.

Watermen don't let their crab pots get away easily, as they cost $20 to $30 in materials for each.

One estimate puts the number of ghost pots in Maryland at 42,000 pots - an impressive number, but still, a miniscule problem compared with the bigger picture of problems ailing the Chesapeake Bay.

The money for the ghost-pot project comes from federal assistance that was awarded to Maryland and Virginia after the crabbing harvest was declared a "disaster" in 2008. The disaster money - $15 million for Maryland - also has been used to hire watermen for oyster restoration, to buy back licenses from watermen, for extra police on the water and to promote Maryland crab meat...

(Revised March 2010)