While most crab pots sent into the depths of the Salish Sea are recovered with or without crab, many are not.
Pots remaining on the seafloor can cause havoc for years, trapping and killing marine wildlife unlucky enough to be caught.
The Northwest Straits Foundation is doing something about that.
The organization will be in the waters near Anacortes late this month or early June to remove derelict crab pots located in the Cap Sante Marina and Guemes Island areas.
“The goal is to have the removals done before the recreational crabbing opener, which is typically mid-July in that area,” said Northwest Straits Foundation Marine Projects Manager Jason Morgan.
The work to remove the derelict crab pots is funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The Northwest Straits Foundation will use side scan sonar to identify the location of lost pots, which allows divers to enter the water at the exact spot to make a retrieval.
“We identify those survey areas based on factors we are aware of that lead directly to gear loss,” Morgan said. “Places we know that have heavy efforts, places like this with swift currents, changes in depth and a lot of vessel traffic. This area has all those and so that’s how we define project areas.”
Morgan said in past derelict gear surveys conducted by the foundation, this particular area had one of the highest densities of lost pots.
In 2018, a side sonar survey revealed 614 derelict crab pots. Of those, 486 were recovered.
“What was unique about it, with an estimated 12,000 crab pots lost in the Puget Sound each year, about 70% of those are from the recreational sector,” Morgan said. “In this area, that was flip-flopped and we saw about 70% commercial, so that is something completely different.”
Of that number of lost pots, Morgan said there is a loss of about 180,000 harvestable male crabs each year. It’s estimated a single lost crab pot can kill up to 15 crabs a year.
Because so many of the crab pots lost are from the recreational side, the foundation launched its Catchable Crab Ad Campaign to educate recreational crabbers about how a properly set pot can help reduce the chance of losing a pot.
On the flip side, seeing as how commercial crabbers in this are responsible for the majority of derelict gear, Morgan said it provides the foundation an opportunity to examine commercial pot loss and find ways to shrink that number.
The foundation is going to do two consecutive years of surveys in the same area.
“What that is going to do is help us evaluate how pot loss rates are occurring over time, and it will allow us to engage the commercial crabbing industry using this area, informing them and making them more aware of the situation, leading to an understanding of the problems as well as the solutions,” Morgan said.
The foundation is working with the Swinomish Indian Tribal Community, which crabs heavily in the area. Morgan said a lot of tribal crabbers are also harvest divers, and the foundation uses those divers in its derelict gear removal programs.
“So we are actually training Swinomish divers in removal of derelict gear and we are employing them to do the removals,” Morgan said. “We also work with the state similarly because they have a boat as well.
“It’s all in an effort to get people who are experiencing this loss to be part of the solution by giving them the tools to work on this problem as well.”
Retrieved pots that can be identified are returned to their owner. That is rarely the case with recreational pots as the name of the pot’s owner is usually attached to a buoy that is almost always missing.
“The good news is none of these pots are going to wind up in a landfill,” Morgan said. “Those recreational pots still usable, we will hold on to some to use in different research projects and we also look to local groups to donate the pots to. The dilapidated, unusable pots are recycled.”