Chesapeake Bay blue crab, assorted fish, and other critters that cruise across the bottom are drowning after being caught in ‘ghost’ crab pots.

Federal researchers estimate that 145,000 abandoned traps and other fishing gear have been abandoned at the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay. That’s 58,000 in the upper Bay of Maryland, and 87,000 in the lower Bay of Virginia.

A federal report on marine debris in the Chesapeake Bay finds abandoned crab pots catch more than six-million crabs a year and about half of them are unable to escape and die; about 4.5% of the 73 million crabs harvested in 2014. Fish are also snagged in lost fishing gear.

“…our model estimates that each year, derelict pots entrap over 3.5 million white perch and nearly 3.6 million Atlantic croaker across the Bay.” – NOAA Final Assessment Report

An effort is underway to remove the abandoned equipment. The report suggests that would increase blue crab harvests by about 27%, 38 million pounds of crabs over six years; 8 million in Maryland and 30 million in Virginia.

2016 Map of derelict crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay
Locations of known or estimated abandoned crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay. Colors scale indicates the density of derelict pots. (Courtesy NOAA)

Causes for the derelict equipment vary. Storms disconnect lines or send traps crashing into the Bay. In 1999, over 100,000 crab pots were reported lost due to Hurricanes Dennis and Floyd.

Chart of derelict crap traps in Chesapeake Bay waterways
Estimated number of abandoned traps in Chesapeake Bay’s biggest crabbing waterways (Courtesy NOAA)

Stronger than expected tides “can tumble pots wrapping the line around the pot and pulling the buoy underwater, move pots into deeper water where the buoy line no longer reaches the surface, or cause pot ‘pile-up’ and line entanglement,” according to the report. Boat propellers catch a crab pot line and pull it far away from where the waterman left it.

Sailboat passes a waterman checking his crabpots
A sailboat passes a waterman checking his crab pots
And sometimes, watermen simply abandon old crap pots to buy new ones rather than haul them off to the dump. Abandoned pots with the line and marker still attached made up 41% of the pots recovered over four years in Virginia.

Removing derelict pots could be a cost-effective way to boost harvest and reduce harmful ecological effects.

— ChesapeakeBayProgram (@chesbayprogram) October 25, 2016

The report recommends legislation requiring owner tags on all crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay, as well as biodegradable escape panels in crab pots.

Researchers also suggest limiting boating in heavily crabbed areas to reduce propellers snagging the lines, requiring water to keep track of the pots and remove ones no longer in use, and increasing funding for regional governments to remove derelict fishing gear from the water.