Be warned: This is a ghost story. A hidden killer haunts marine life in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries: tens of thousands of baited crab traps left behind by watermen each year.
These “ghost pots” capture legions of crabs, eels, terrapins, fish, muskrats and even an occasional duck, leaving them to die. For three years starting in 2008, more than 22,000 blue crabs, male and female, were found dead in ghost pots collected by watermen such as the Hogges under a federal and state program that pays for their work. Another 2,600 oyster toadfish, 950 sea snails known as whelks and 430 black sea bass were killed.
“It’s like a feeding machine,” said state Department of Natural Resources Secretary Doug Domenech, who recently sailed with the Hogges to see firsthand how the program partly overseen by his agency works. “Animals get stuck and can’t get out. So they . . . become bait for the next animal that comes.”
Watermen in Virginia are licensed to set about 300,000 crab pots each year. About 20 percent — 60,000 — are lost, according to a Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimate. The certain toll of dead animals represents those found in about 28,000 recovered pots, said Kirk J. Havens, director of the Coastal Watersheds Program for the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. A short-lived program in Maryland removed 6,000 ghost pots, he said.
The Chesapeake’s iconic blue crabs have enough problems without catching a death sentence in a ghost pot. Their dangerously low population is just beginning to come back after Virginia closed the December-to-March winter fishery as part of an effort to protect them.
Each ghost pot traps about 50 crabs per year, according to an estimate by the institute. The killing continues all year, even when the waters are closed to crab harvesting.
The program to remove the pots has been a success, Havens said. But it will end a four-year run when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration stops funding it after this year’s haul in March.
On this bright morning, though, Edward and Cheryl
Hogge are still at work. They reach over the side of their boat and haul up a deformed peeler crab trap heavy with mud, grass and too many sea grapes to count. Inside, flat on its back, white belly gleaming in the sun, is a tiny dead blue crab.
The trap once was sturdy chicken wire coated by vinyl, but now it is a dilapidated animal trap, jailing creatures until they perish. New pots come with a buoy that floats to the surface and marks a trap’s place in the water. But boats often snag the ropes, and storms may roll the trap, wrapping the tether around it and pulling the buoy under during the March-to-November open crab fishery.