RIVERVIEW — Volunteers pulled about 100 abandoned crab traps from the water Saturday morning in an effort to save trapped sea creatures and clean up Tampa Bay.
Organized by the nonprofit Tampa Bay Watch, dozens of volunteers met at six sites in Pinellas and Hillsborough counties to search for the thousands of traps thought to be abandoned in area waters.
"Abandoned traps are ghost fishing," said Serra Herndon, habitat restoration director for Tampa Bay Watch. "They are still catching, still trapping the crabs and the fish but no one is going back to check on them."
Traps also create boating hazards and can damage the environment, she said.
Because it is often difficult to differentiate between abandoned and in-use crab traps, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission closed blue crab harvesting in the area between July 10 and July 19.
During this time, any traps remaining in the water are considered abandoned and fair game to organizations such as Tampa Bay Watch. The wildlife commission closes harvesting at areas across the state for 10 days about once every two years.
"It's a unique opportunity for us to be able to open it up and invite community members without having to worry about pulling nonderelict traps," Herndon said.
Besides being illegally abandoned, traps often become lost after storms or are snagged by a boat, drifting to another location, Herndon said. The closure allows those to be identified and removed.
At Riverview's Williams Park boat ramp where the Alafia River empties into the Hillsborough Bay, Jim Igler of Ruskin led a group of 12 volunteers and three boats. The group found eight crab traps, two of which had crabs trapped inside.
"They become trapped in these traps and end up suffering and dying," Herndon said. "That's one of the biggest consequences — we need to help reduce the unnecessary kills of our wildlife."
Adam Hange of Temple Terrace volunteered at the Alafia River site. He said he was pleasantly surprised with the low number of traps found.
"Every year it seems like less and less traps are left out there," he said. "Fishermen are being more responsible and more aware."
But at other areas, the catch was much higher. Volunteers pulled 33 crab traps from the waters around Fort De Soto and 30 near the Courtney Campbell Parkway. Similar numbers were estimated at sites near Cockroach Bay, Demens Landing and Belleair Causeway.
"We weren't sure what to expect," Herndon said. "But we're pleased with the amount we found."
For many, volunteering provides a way to actively work toward the protection of the waterways they love.
Howard and Peggy Swanson live along the canals in Apollo Beach and routinely see the traps clogging the channels.
"It makes it hard to navigate, and they tend to get in the way," Peggy Swanson said.
Igler and Hange volunteer to help the environment often and said projects such as pulling abandoned crab traps are events people need to get more involved with.
"Everything — Florida, the U.S. — is based on our environment," Igler said. "We've got to take care of it."
Shelley Rossetter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.