By Art Morris, Texas Parks & Wildlife Department
We see ghosts fishing in Texas’ coastal waters.
We are not alone.
Ghosts are fishing throughout a lot of our country’s waters ... although these are not the phantoms from the 1980s movie.
Rather this is the continued fishing of an untended device.
A device gone astray. Abandoned. Derelict. Lost.
It doesn’t matter how it became such. All that matters that it is real.
In Texas’ waters our “ghosts” appear to us in the form of crab traps.
Ghost fishing is a silent killer, luring in critters that perish and become bait to lure more in. Abandoned crab traps, ghost nets, marine debris. All are types of ghost fishing. It’s a horror flick straight out of Hollywood, but without the happy ending.
For Texans, this ghost fishing dilemma appears as a 3’x3’x2’ wire trap to catch blue crabs. I’ve had the privilege to take on the trouble with traps and have had a hand in the removal of nearly 30,000 derelict traps from Texas marine waters. Chiefly, through our Abandoned Crab Trap Removal Program which began in 2002.
Volunteers work hard to collect traps and stop ghost fishing. (Photo: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)
The task was to work on the removal of derelict crab traps from about one million acres of water stretched out over 367 miles. We created a program where volunteers remove derelict traps in all eight major bays systems along the Texas coast, and volunteers showed up in droves. Sponsors like the Coastal Conservation Association Texas, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service to name a few have been with us since day one and many others stepped up as well. That first year, we removed 8,070 traps from Texas waters!
We knew that a derelict trap was a poster child for ghost fishing, so we looked at 1,703 traps to answer some basic questions. Who would have thought we would find 3,675 organisms in those traps, averaging two critters per trap. Some had LOTS more. Naturally, we saw blue crabs and stone crabs, but we also saw just about every species of important Texan sport fish, 10 non-game fish species and 11 invertebrate species and even diamond-backed terrapins. Forty-one species in all.
Volunteers removed nine sheepshead, seven toadfish, six gray snapper, four black drum and three Atlantic spadefish from one trap. A river otter was released live from another. During the 2005 event, 22 diamond-backed terrapins were found in four Galveston Bay traps – all had drowned. This year, 28 sheepshead were removed from one trap in San Antonio Bay.
Animals, such as turtles, can get caught in ghost traps -- and die. (Photo: Texas Parks & Wildlife Department)
It is estimated that one ghost fishing crab trap can trap and kill 26 blue crabs per trap per year. So, the 29,552 traps we have removed add up to over 480,000 blue crabs alone that have been saved from the ghost fishing of these traps – if the trap was lost for only one year. Some traps had been derelict since 1998. And that only represents blue crabs, not the 40 other species.
The success of the program raised awareness across the Gulf. Today, all Gulf states have a derelict trap removal program. States along the Atlantic Coast and Washington are evaluating or implementing derelict trap removal programs. Our own Inland Fisheries Division has asked how the program could be tweaked to address derelict trotlines in fresh waters. The Gulf States Marine Fishery Commission created a document to help others create their own programs called Guidelines for Developing Derelict Trap Removal Programs in the Gulf of Mexico.
The award winning program has saved countless species, not to mention removing the unsightly remnants and diminishing encounters with propellers, trawls and hooks. The program has removed more than 70 tons of trap debris.
We’d like to declare ghost fishing dead in Texas, but know it will live on as long as crab traps continue to be lost. We’ll keep working on it though.
Watch a video of these ghost (fishing) busters in action here.
Art Morris is a Fishery Outreach Specialist for the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department