Crabbing season is well underway, and that means hundreds of thousands of crab pots are in the Chesapeake Bay catching blue crabs.
Every morning during crabbing season, you can see watermen gathering up their pots, collecting their catch, and putting the pots back in the water. What you cannot see is the problem: pots that have had their lines severed sit on the bay's bottom, sometimes never seen again, along with the crabs inside them.
However, many of those pots can quickly become "ghost" pots, sinking to the bottom of the bay and taking millions of crabs with them. Those ghost pots, or derelict pots as they are also known, have been a problem in the bay for decades, diminishing the crab population, and potentially costing watermen millions of dollars.
"They're a crab pot, a crab trap...what goes in usually doesn't come out," said waterman Skip Meisel.
A recent report by the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences estimates there are 145,000 of those derelict pots on the floor of the bay. About 87,000 of those are in Virginia, which has more than Maryland because Maryland does not allow crab pots in tributaries.
Every year it is estimated that 12-20 percent of the watermens' pots are lost, costing them between $3.5 and $5 million to replace. Inside those pots are an estimated 6 million crabs, 3.3 million of which are killed.
Kirk Havens, who has been studying the issue for more than a decade, demonstrated how the crabs get trapped.
"Crabs enter through here. This is a bait box here," he said. "Generally they move up and they go into this upper chamber. Once there, it is really difficult for them to get out. These are cull rigs, which allow smaller crabs to get escape. Once they are in this upper chamber, they're pretty much caught."
And once they are in the pots, a vicious cycle begins.
"Crabs will go into those lost pots, simply to check it out. And then of course they can get trapped in these, fish can get trapped, and you can have this self-baiting phenomenon," Havens said.
How are the pots lost?
"The watermen are clearly not the culprits on this," said researcher Ward Slacum. "They are doing an activity they have done for a very long time."
Weather is one factor. Rough waters can separate pots from their lines.
But the consensus appears to point to recreational boaters severing the lines as they share the Chesapeake Bay with watermen. And it is a problem not limited to the Chesapeake.
"We get a lot of them run over by recreational boaters... people steal them," said Meisel.
Meisel, who crabs the waters of Delaware's coastal bays, said losing pots can be a financial hit.
"Thirty dollars a pot - you lose 10, 300 bucks. It starts to add up. It adds up a lot," he said.
Several years ago, the federal government funded an effort to have out of work watermen retrieve lost pots. But that money dried up, leaving researchers and watermen to focus on other options, one of which is preventing lost pots, which experts agree requires education.
Slacum, one of the first researchers to identify ghost pots, said it is critical the public understand the consequences of its actions.
"If they come in contact with a crab pot, the consequences are you might lose that to the fishery, and therefore, it will still be on the bottom, but still actively capturing the animals," he said.
And that could drive up the cost of crabs, according to Jason Rolfe, of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"We want to make they understand how much they could be affecting the harvest with crabbers," he said. "So the cost may be higher for them if they want to buy a bushel of crabs.because so many of these crabs are stuck in these derelict pots."
Still, it is inevitable that pots will be lost. And that is where biodegradable panels come in. They are essentially doors on the pots that would disintegrate, presumably quickly enough to allow crabs to escape.
"The concept is once they get into that upper chamber, if they are lost this panel will degrade away, and it's the same size as the entrance funnel, so anything that is in here can get out here," said Havens of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences.
The biodegradable panels cost between $1 and $2 a piece, a cost watermen would have to absorb.
Researchers like Havens are hopeful a consistent effort will provide a long-term solution.
"It's really a three-pronged approach: Education to keep people from running over these pots, incorporation of bio-degradable panels so they don't continue to capture and kill animals, and the idea of trying to get these pots out of areas where they are concentrated," Havens said.