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Ghost Crab Pots Pose Threat To Terrapins - June 26, 2016

                Summer is officially here, and for most Marylanders, that also means crab season. Enjoying a bushel of steamed blue crabs is the unofficial tradition of Maryland summers. Throughout the Chesapeake and Coastal Bays, crab pot buoys can be seen floating at the water’s surface. Unfortunately, crabs are not the only bay inhabitant caught by these pots.

                Diamondback terrapins and blue crabs enjoy eating many of the same food sources, including clams, mussels, small fish, and even carrion. Due to this shared interest in food, terrapins are often lured into crab pots by the bait meant for crabs. Terrapins spend the majority of their time in the water hunting for food, and can hold their breath for extended periods of time. A mature terrapin can hold its breath anywhere from 45 minutes to up to five hours. However, terrapins trapped in crab pots often drown because they are unable to surface for air.

                Occasionally, a crab pot can become detached from its buoy or forgotten. These lost pots known as “ghost pots”, are still able to continue catching crabs, fish, and terrapins. Even after the original bait is gone, the pots “re-bait” themselves. As new animals get trapped in the pots and die, they attract others that then become trapped as well. One study estimated that there are 85,000 ghost pots in the Maryland portion of Chesapeake Bay alone!

                Crab pots are lost due to a variety of causes, such as gear conflicts, storm events, or debris catching the pots. However, the majority of crab pots lost in Maryland are due to boat propellers cutting the line. The easiest way to prevent this from occurring is to avoid crab pot marker floats. Not only does hitting a buoy lose the crab pot, but the boat’s props can also be damaged from getting tangled in the line.

                Last week, a Good Samaritan notified Ocean City Animal Control of a ghost pot in Assawoman Bay. Upon removal, over twenty deceased terrapins were found trapped inside. The pot, most likely commercial, had become detached from its buoy and was “lost”.

                Recreational crab pots can pose an even greater threat to terrapins than commercial pots. Recreational pots are legally able to be set only from private docks. This keeps the pots in shallow water, where smaller terrapins spend a large portion of their time. This increases the likelihood of them becoming trapped in the pots. Checking pots several times a day, and removing them from the water when not in use, will help reduce the number of terrapins killed. Additionally, recreational pots are required to be equipped with a By-catch Reduction Device (BRD), otherwise known as a Turtle Excluder Device (TED).

                BRDs are rectangular inserts that attach to the funnel openings of a crab pot. These devices (legal dimensions  1 ¾ in x 14 ¾ in)  prevent large terrapins and other large animals from being able to enter the pot, while still allowing legal sized crabs to enter. Unfortunately, juvenile and small terrapins may still be able to fit through the BRD; however, reducing the size of the BRDs would reduce the number of legal sized crabs caught.

                 Recreational crabbers can help reduce terrapin by-catch by installing BRDs on all openings of their crab pots. Many retailers sell crab pots with BRDs already installed, while others sell them separately. Maryland Coastal Bays Program has a limited supply of BRDs available, free of charge, thanks to grant funding from the Eastern Shore Community Foundation. To get a BRD, contact Sandi Smith at 410-213-2297 ext. 106 or atsandis@mdcoastalbays.org.

                By being responsible Coastal Bays’ citizens, we can protect our state reptile, the Diamondback Terrapin. Equipping crab pots with BRDs, and avoiding crab pot buoys are simple ways to keep these reptiles safe. To learn more or to view our terrapin By-catch Reduction Device PSA, visit Maryland Coastal Bays’ website at www.mdcoastalbays.org

Phillips is the Program Manager for the Maryland Coastal Bays Program. 

 



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