State’s annual crab-trap removal program makes tons of sense
A half-million blue crabs is a lot of crabs - about 83 tons worth, based on the average weight of these crustaceans so crucial to the ecologic, economic and recreational health of Gulf Coast marine ecosystems.
Throw in tens of thousands of sheepshead and flounder, speckled trout, croaker, black drum and other inshore finfish, piles of stone crabs, a smattering of sea turtles and diamondback terrapins, the odd otter, raccoon and duck and you have a significant biomass of creatures that help make Texas bays and estuaries the vibrant places they are.
That amount of marine life is a rough estimate of what volunteers in Texas’ abandoned crab-trap removal program have saved from a lingering, unnecessary and wholly wasteful death - an impressive tally to which volunteers will be able to add during this year’s annual 10-day effort set for Feb. 16-25.
Since Texas began the annual clean-up program in 2002, volunteer participants have pulled more than 33,000 of the wire-mesh traps from Texas bays, according to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department records. Each of those derelict traps poses a threat to marine life in and on Texas bay waters and humans who boat, fish, swim, shrimp or otherwise work or recreate on inshore waters.
Traps good at what they do
Wire crab traps set by commercial and recreational crabbers are very good at their jobs, the attraction of bait (fish parts, usually) placed in the middle of the trap drawing hungry blue crabs into the boxes through funnel-like openings. The crabs - and other marine life entering the cage - find it almost impossible to find their way out through the small openings. Trapped, captives remain in the cage until the owner retrieves it, unclips the tie-down cord securing the wire box’s “door” and empties the scuttling, snapping occupants into holding containers.
This works fine so long as owners regularly tend their traps. But many crab traps become lost or abandoned. Maybe a storm or high tide and current swept the trap into deep water, where the trap’s buoy, attached via a line, isn’t visible. Or wind, tide and current carried the trap into shallow water or some isolated pocket along the shoreline. Maybe the buoy line rotted or was cut by a boat propeller. Or the trap was just abandoned. Still, those derelict traps continue their deadly work.
“It’s called ‘ghost fishing,’ ” Carey Gelpi, Sabine Lake ecosystem leader for TPWD’s coastal fisheries division, said of the lost, abandoned or untended crab traps. Crabs and other marine life entering the derelict traps become “bait” that attracts other predators. Those predators, in turn, become prey for the next creature drawn to the promise of an easy meal.
“When you pull up an abandoned trap that has crabs in it, you’ll often find one really healthy crab and several others that are missing legs the one big crab has eaten,” Gelpi said. “It’s a cycle that goes on as long as the trap remains viable.”
And that can be years. Modern crab traps, made of vinyl-coated wire, are much more resistant to the corrosive effects of saltwater than the simply galvanized wire traps they have replaced. Research has shown some of those traps can remain viable for two or three years and even longer in brackish environments.
Those ghost-fishing derelict traps can take a tremendous toll on marine life. A Louisiana study in the 1990s found a functioning abandoned crab trap catches and kills an average of 25 blue crabs per year. Other studies have placed the annual toll as low as five crabs per year and as high as 35.
Then there are the other creatures fatally attracted to the derelict traps. Abandoned crab traps have been found to become death traps for more than two-dozen species of fish. Sheepshead are the most common victims. But speckled trout, founder, croaker, drum and other marine fish have been found in the traps.
Diamondback terrapins, a protected species and the only terrestrial turtle living in a saltwater environment, are particularly vulnerable to abandoned crab traps. Sea turtles sometime become entangled in the traps or, more commonly, in the buoy lines. Even otters, raccoons, wading birds and at least one duck have been found, dead, in derelict crab traps in Texas bays.
Rule changes make difference
Changes in rules governing crab traps have helped in reducing the toll taken by derelict traps. Texas requires crab traps be fit with at least two “escape rings,” small (minimum 23⁄8-inch diameter) rings set in the cage’s sides to allow small crabs and fish to easily find a way out of the trap. Also, Texas requires all crab traps be fit with a biodegradable panel (minimum 3 inches by 6 inches ) or use biodegradable twine in the trap’s tie-down; this increases chances the trap will lose its effectiveness if lost or abandoned.
And a lot of crab traps are lost of abandoned. Currently, Texas bays are home to 180 or so licensed commercial crabbers, each of whom is allowed to fish a maximum of 200 traps. Estimates are that crabbers annually lose 25 to 50 percent of their traps. Even if the loss rate is 20 percent, that means as many as 7,000 or more traps are lost in Texas bays each year.
Many of those traps, and thousands lost in previous years, continue “ghost fishing,” draining marine life from Texas bays. And those traps also are threats to humans; they are navigation hazards, entangle outboards, clog shrimp trawls, and cut and scrape waders and swimmers who stumble upon submerged traps.
Until 2002, almost nothing could be done to remove these derelict traps. Texas law considered the traps - even abandoned or illegal traps - to be private property of the owners. Only law enforcement officers could remove the traps and then only hold them until getting a court order to destroy them after posting legal notices offering trap owners the opportunity to claim them.
Pushed by coastal anglers frustrated at the thousands of abandoned traps littering Texas bays and the toll they were taking on marine life, the Texas Legislature in 2001 passed a bill allowing TPWD to close all Texas bays to use of crab traps for a brief period and designated any crab traps in the bays during the closure as “litter” that could be removed by anyone.
Beginning in 2002, TPWD imposed a 10-day closure of bays to crab-trap use, setting the closure in February to coincide with slow season for commercial crabbers and when low tides behind winter cold fronts exposed more derelict traps in shallow water.
Each year since, the agency along with a group of conservation-minded private organizations and private businesses and other government entities have coordinated an effort to get volunteers on the bays to remove any crab traps they find. They focus most of their efforts on the first Saturday of the closure. This year, that is this coming Saturday.
TPWD and partners - groups such as Coastal Conservation Association, Galveston Bay Foundation, Coastal Bend Bays and Estuaries Program, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - will have staff members at many of the 20 sites designated as drop-off sites for volunteers collecting derelict traps. Those sites, located at public boat ramps and parks, are peppered along the coast, from Sabine Lake to Lower Laguna Madre. Seven of them are in the Galveston Bay complex, which with the San Antonio Bay complex annually sees the highest numbers of derelict traps.
On Saturday, many of those “staffed” sites will have folks cooking meals, offering hot coffee, help unloading crab traps from volunteers’ boats and doing whatever they can to benefit the effort. That includes, at many sites, supplying volunteers with gloves, hooks to snag and drag traps, and tarps to try keeping boat decks from getting too muddy from traps piled on them.
A list of trap location sites, contact and other information on the annual abandoned crab trap removal program can be found at tpwd.texas.gov.
While Saturday is the day that most of the effort is made to remove derelict traps, anyone can rid the bays of these drains on marine life any time during the 10-day closure.
Yes, it can be a dirty, wet, chilly, hard work; sometimes volunteers have to muck through soft shallows and struggle to free traps partially covered with sand and mud. But the reward is a richer, heathier bay system.
“It’s a way people can have a very direct, tangible positive impact on the fishery,” Gelpi said of the trap-removal program.
It undeniably has had a positive impact on the 83 tons or so of blue crabs and hundreds of thousands of fish and other marine life that would otherwise have been lost to the 33,000-plus traps the program has so far removed.