Captain Edward Hogge pulls in a “ghost pot” on his 40-foot deadrise boat. (Darryl Fears/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Under the murky waters of the York River, an eerie blur appeared suddenly on Edward Hogge’s sonar, near where his 40-foot deadrise boat sailed about a mile offshore on a cool December morning.

Hogge made a hard right turn. “I’m going back to get it,” he said. He called out to his wife and first mate, Cheryl. “All right, honey, get your gloves on. Get ready!” When the boat stopped, she tossed a long rope lined with hooks overboard and yanked it. “It’s got something! It’s heavy,” Cheryl Hogge said.

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.

“Some of them you can’t get,” Edward Hogge said. “They’re so old, they’ve been in the water so long, they fall apart.”

Earlier in the day, the Hogges pulled up traps with three dead or dying eels, a weakened oyster toadfish and a dead croaker.

“Last year, we caught a lot of them,” Cheryl Hogge said of ghost pots. “I think we caught, like, 348 or something, right up at the top of the most caught.”

Virginia is trying to create a more animal-friendly pot. It would have a portal made of a plant-based polymer that dissolves if left in water for a year or more, allowing animals to escape forgotten pots.

The loss of the Chesapeake Bay’s most recognized seafood is detrimental to more than just the crab. Restaurants, retailers and customers pay more for crabs, and watermen, who rely on the creatures for income, suffer too.

In 2007, the federal government allocated $15 million to Maryland and Virginia “to assist those economically hurt by the commercial fishery failure, and to support the restoration of the fishery.” In other words, taxpayers would help watermen put food on the table and scientists to resurrect the crab.

Virginia used its money to develop a Blue Crab Fishery Resource Disaster Relief Plan.

When then-Gov. Tim Kaine (D) insisted that watermen work for the assistance, the Virginia Department of Natural Resources and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science came up with the ghost pot removal program.

Edward Hogge said recruiting watermen for the work was a good idea. “Those guys at VIMS are very smart, but they don’t know the water like we do.”

Hogge was chosen for the job after state officials entered his winter dredging license in a lottery. He was issued a new, $2,500 side-scan imaging sonar for his 51-year-old boat and paid $300 per day and fuel costs for up to 50 days. He and his wife spend six hours on the water, usually starting at 7 a.m., when temperatures often are below 30 degrees on the water.

Like most watermen, Hogge would rather be crabbing, and he wants the state to open the winter fishery.

“It took our work, and there’s nothing for us to do,” he said. “Now they want to take this program away. I have no education. I quit school in the fifth grade. I was married by the time I was 17. I’ve got to do something.”

As he steered the boat back, Hogge had an admission about the winter dredge harvest, which involves raking up crabs that have buried themselves in the bay bottom to shelter from the cold. “That dredge is heavy when it comes down. When I drag it, I catch about three bushels of crabs. But I also kill three bushels. If it doesn’t get all the crab, it gets part of it.”

Earlier, as he loaded a ghost pot onto his boat, Hogge had another admission. Most watermen are honest workers, he said, but “this was thrown overboard deliberately. A lot of them don’t care. That’s just the way some people are.”