by Jamie Hammond and Savanna Barry
On Wednesday, January 5th, 2022, partners worked together to remove 52 derelict blue crab traps from the Steinhatchee estuary. They removed a total of 1,120 pounds of debris, continuing a years-long effort to reduce derelict traps within local aquatic preserves.
What is a derelict trap?
Derelict fishing gear can cause harm in several ways, including resource impacts, creating navigational hazards, and becoming eyesores. Removing these so-called “derelict” traps in an important task. Fishers do not regularly remove derelict traps from the water and check them because the traps are lost. Thus, they sit on the bottom and shade out the seagrass underneath them, causing seagrass die back.
These traps also continue to ‘fish’ by trapping blue crabs but also curious critters like toadfish, juvenile snapper and even diamondback terrapins. These animals are known as bycatch and often perish in the derelict traps as they cannot escape on their own, a phenomenon is called “ghost fishing”. Outside the environmental impacts, the derelict traps also pose a risk to boaters due to the loss of buoy markers. Derelict traps often lay unmarked just under the surface and can become tangled in lower units when struck by vessels.
How do we clean up traps?
This type of marine debris removal effort is best done during winter negative low tides. Extreme low tides expose the traps and make removal easier. Airboats allow access to the shallow waters and participants assess each trap in accordance with FWC’s derelict trap guidelines. These organized events are made possible by scouting areas of concern and obtaining authorization permits from FWC prior to preforming actual removal. For more information, please visit: Derelict Trap Retrieval and Debris Removal Programs | FWC (myfwc.com).
The current efforts in the Nature Coast are led by FDEP’s Big Bend Seagrasses Aquatic Preserve (BBSAP). BBSAP staff first noted a major issue with derelict blue crap traps in the Steinhatchee River/Gulf of Mexico confluence after Hurricane Hermine in 2016. UF/IFAS Nature Coast Biological Station (NCBS) staff and other partners (especially UF/IFAS Taylor County Extension) have assisted annually with removal efforts since 2017. We at NCBS are avid supporters of these efforts because of the positive impacts that can result.
What good does removal do?
The seven cooperative derelict crab trap cleanups from 2017-2022 enhanced approximately 95 acres of submerged estuarine habitat by removing 601 traps from the Steinhatchee estuary. Participants rescued more than 700 specimens of live bycatch (fish, crabs, etc.) from derelict traps. Many traps contained evidence of ghost-fished (dead) organisms.
Research conducted in the Chesapeake Bay showed that removal of derelict blue crab traps increased the yield of actively fished traps by up to 27%, especially in open nearshore zones close to tidal marshes (similar to the areas we targeted in these cleanups). While it is difficult to quantify the specific benefits of the Steinhatchee cleanups, without a doubt removal of derelict fishing gear benefits both the ecosystem and fishery yield for local crabbers by reducing ghost fishing.
We look forward to promoting efforts in more waterways along the Gulf Coast! Say tuned for more on how you can get involved! A great way to help is to report locations of derelict crab traps in other areas of the Nature Coast to FWC law enforcement.
 Scheld, A.M., D.M. Bilkovic, and K.J. Havens. 2016. The dilemma of derelict gear. Scientific Reports 6:19671.