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Lost Crab Pots Still Catching Crabs

by Krista J. Kapralos, The Herald
The Seattle Times, June 5, 2008

PORT SUSAN, Wash. - The Stillaguamish Indian Tribe has spent $70,000 over the past five years to locate and remove more than 400 crab pots that have been abandoned on the seabed of Port Susan.

There are still about 100 crab pots left. Many are buried in sediment or too tangled to be easily raised.

"They not only kill crabs, but also fish and other species," said Jen Sevigny, a wildlife biologist for the tribe. "It damages bottom habitat like eel grass beds."

Fishermen leave the pots behind when they inadvertently drop them too deep into the water. Boats skimming the surface of the water often slice a pot's line, letting it fall to the sea floor. In other areas, ferries drag pots left in their paths to ports miles away.

Sevigny and other biologists know the abandoned pots are a problem, but how much of a problem isn't clear. Over the next year, the tribe will conduct a crab mortality study in an effort to fill in that data gap.

Last month, tribal crews dropped 12 crabbing pots into the port - six pots at 30 feet and six pots at 60 feet.

"We're deploying pots as if they were abandoned," Sevigny said.

Every week for the next year, divers will check the pots to determine how quickly crabs are caught. After a year, the tribe will have a good idea of how many crabs are caught in abandoned pots, how long they survive before dying, and how long abandoned pots continue to attract fresh catches. The data will be turned over to the University of Washington, which will create an economic model and determine the value of the loss to the crabbing industry.

The Stillaguamish tribe, which is funding the study, said cleaning up the crab pots helps the ecosystem and native fisheries.

While the tribe conducts the study, the Northwest Straits Commission will conduct its own research in Clallam County. Together, the data sets will offer fresh insight into how quickly abandoned pots accumulate, and exactly how many crabs die in them.

The data will help the Stillaguamish tribe get grants and other funding to continue clearing out abandoned pots and to educate fishermen on how to catch crabs responsibly.

Stillaguamish tribal employees found 145 crabs in the 12 purposely abandoned pots during the first seven days of the study, Sevigny said.

That number doesn't surprise her.

The Northwest Straits Commission estimates up to 20,000 derelict crab pots have accumulated in Puget Sound waters over the last three to five years.

The commission estimates that more than a third of those pots, though abandoned, continue to actively catch crabs and fish for several months to a year. Each pot has the potential to catch between 10 and 75 crabs a year. The commission says the pots could have killed between 50,000 and half a million crabs.

Recreational crab pots may cost as little as $20. Larger, commercial-quality pots for catching Dungeness crab cost between $100 and $150, including line and buoy, said Flo Fanning, office manager for Dungeness Gear Works Inc. in Everett. Commercial Dungeness crab fishermen often use 200 or more pots at a time. It's not unusual for them to lose three pots a year, she said.

Dungeness crabs are thriving in the Puget Sound, said Ginny Broadhurst, director of the Northwest Straits Commission.

That means more fishermen are setting traps all over the region, even in the path of state ferries. The ferries can snag the pot lines and drag them to ports, Broadhurst said. The commission found about 300 pots in a small area near one ferry dock at Lopez Island in the San Juans, she said.

Crab pots have been lost as long as fishermen have been using them, Broadhurst said.

"You can buy the pots at any of the big sporting goods stores, so the loss of the pots isn't being felt by one manufacturer in particular," she said.

To commercial fishermen, who sell Dungeness crabs for about $3.35 each, the economic loss caused by abandoned pots throughout the region could be as high as $1.8 million each year, according to the commission. The estimated annual crab harvest value is about $2.3 million.

It costs about $193 to remove each abandoned pot.

The Stillaguamish Indian Tribe owns land near Arlington, inland from the coastline, but the damage caused by those derelict crabbing pots reverberates throughout the region, Stillaguamish Tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity said.

"Everything that goes on out in the salt water and in the mouth of the river is going to have an effect on our watershed," Stillaguamish tribal Chairman Shawn Yanity said.

Abandoned fishing nets are as much a cause for concern as abandoned pots. According to the Northwest Straits Commission, one net known to have been abandoned for just one week trapped a seal, 68 crabs, 30 dogfish sharks, and more than 200 other fish, including endangered chinook salmon.

The Stillaguamish tribe has been working since 2003 to locate and remove thousands of pots and nets that litter the sea floor.

Information from: The Herald

Krista J. Kapralos, The Herald
Lost Crab Pots Still Catching Crabs
The Seattle Times, June 5, 2008

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