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The Legacy of Ghost Crab Traps by Dr. Lenore Tedesco

Originally published in

Cape May Magazine Spring 2014 (vol 9, #1)


The Legacy of

Ghost Crab Traps Every year, despite the best efforts of watermen, an estimated 250,000 commercial-style Blue Crab traps are lost or abandoned throughout the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast. By Lenore P. Tedesco for The Wetlands Institute

74 Cape May Magazine

Spring 2014


A Deadly Legacy Floats get lost, traps get moved in storms, and a host of other factors come into play. These lost traps are known as ghost traps, and finding and removing them is a focus of work being undertaken by The Wetlands Institute in Stone Harbor. Ghost traps are lost or abandoned Blue Crab traps that continue to capture animals until they break down or become too encrusted with barnacles or other growth forms to fish any longer. These traps are also a hazard to boats, sometimes damaging propellers and hulls. Ghost traps continue “fishing,” with captured animals becoming the bait in an endless cycle called “ghost fishing.” Ghost trap bycatch (unintended, non-target animals) are killed in alarming numbers, creating both negative economic and ecological impacts.

Conservation In Action Each December, after the crabbing season closes, volunteers from the Wetlands Institute and collaborating scientists in South Jersey launch boats in search of these lost traps. Finding them is difficult. They use side scan sonar (side-looking underwater radar), as well as visual cues at low tide, to locate underwater hazards. Once identified as crab traps, and in accordance with permits, they retrieve these ghost traps and free the trapped animals. Over the past two years, scientists at the Institute have recovered dozens of traps in the bays and creeks of Cape May County. As anticipated, some traps contained remains of dead animals including Blue Crabs, Spider Crabs, Mud Crabs, Oyster Toadfish, Channeled Whelks, seastars, and Diamondback Terrapins. Several traps also contained live animals, which were immediately released. Diamondback Terrapins are especially susceptible to being trapped. These turtles are carnivores and are attracted by the bait fish used in commercialstyle Blue Crab traps. Therefore, male and female terrapins push their way through the trap entrance funnels to get to the bait. Unlike crabs, which have gills, terrapins have lungs and are air breathers just

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like humans. So, once inside the traps, terrapins struggle to escape and usually drown. Sadly, some traps we have found contain dozens of dead terrapins. Last December, the team found a trapped terrapin that was near death. She was revived in the field and spent the winter at the Institute recuperating. She was nicknamed Fortunata, which means “having unexpected good fortune.� With the help of children participating in the Wetlands’ homeschool program, Fortunata was released this spring when the water temperature warmed enough for her to find food easily. Ben Atkinson, a Wetlands Institute visiting research scientist and PhD candidate at the University of Florida, is conducting research on the impacts of ghost traps in our local waters. His work analyzes the distribution, abundance, and condition of ghost traps and also characterizes the composition and mortality rates of bycatch, and the effect it has on populations, especially Diamondback Terrapins.

Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRD)

This page top: Searching for crab traps to retrieve. Fortunata on the day she was saved from an abondoned crab trap. After being cared for at the Wetlands Institute, she was released back into her natural habitat. A BRD in place on a crab trap. Opposite page: Collecting the abondoned traps.

76 Cape May Magazine

Spring 2014

The Wetlands Institute is interested in conservation programs that are actionable and that involve the community in creating solutions. They have been working on the issue of bycatch reduction for many years. In the mid-1990s, scientists at the Institute developed simple, inexpensive and effective terrapin excluder devices. This work, and the research documenting


Locations of recovered ghost traps. Over 70 traps were found from 2007-2012

excluder effectiveness, was the basis for a 1998 regulation in New Jersey that requires the entrances of commercialstyle crab pots to be equipped with Bycatch Reduction Devices (BRDs) to reduce mortality of terrapins and other non-target species. The regulation applies to all commercial-style crab traps used in salt marsh creeks less than 150 feet wide at mean low tide, or in any man-made lagoon. Several other states, including Maryland and Delaware, now have similar regulations. BRDs can easily fit into the narrow end of the funnel entrance on crab traps. They prevent many terrapins, especially the larger females, from entering the traps by narrowing the height of the opening. Interestingly, research has shown that excluder use increases the number of marketable crabs caught. The reduced size of the opening that effectively excludes larger terrapins also makes it more difficult for crabs, especially the larger ones, to find their way out. A win-win situation for watermen and for Diamondback Terrapins! The Wetlands Institute has been partnering with the MATES Academy’s Project Terrapin to raise awareness about the importance of BRDs and the requirements for their use in New Jersey. Thanks to this partnership, the Institute is distributing a limited number of BRDs free of charge to recreational crabbers in an effort to increase usage. It’s an easy action, and it makes a difference. If you love Blue Crabs and Diamondback Terrapins, please make sure that your crab traps, and those of your friends, are fitted with Bycatch Reduction Devices. To pick up free BRDs for your recreational traps, check your local tackle store or contact The Wetlands Institute. 

More from the Wetlands Turtle Fest

April 19, from 9am to 3pm Enjoy a pancake breakfast for the whole family. Terrapin egg hunt, games and prizes, arts and crafts, live turtles, and more. Stop by the aquarium and watch the animals have breakfast too! Seatings at 9, 10, 10:45, and 11:30 am.

Spring Shorebird and Horseshoe Crab Festival

May 17-18, from 9am to 4pm Join the Wetlands Institute and the Delaware Bay Shorebird Initiative for a festival that celebrates an amazing spectacle of nature: the shorebird migration and horseshoe crab spawning season. Enjoy guided shorebird walks along our local beaches and salt marshes, viewings of shorebird and horseshoe crab interactions along the Delaware Bay, naturalist-led horseshoe crab night walks and opportunities to view and participate in shorebird tagging with the International Shorebird Research Team. Please visit wetlandsinstitute. org for more information about these events and more upcoming events.

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The Legacy of Ghost Crab Traps  

by Dr. Lenore Tedesco. Originally published in Cape May Magazine, Spring 2014 (vol. 9, #1)

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