RUSKIN — Dressed in layers to ward off the cold, three dozen volunteers boarded two skiffs and a dozen airboats.
Their targets: derelict crab traps that are harming marine life in Coackroach Bay. The volunteers from Tampa Bay Watch were hunting for crab traps that lack at least three of the four required items — a buoy, a line, a current trap tag and a current commercial saltwater products license.
Crabbers lose their traps in severe weather, sometimes forget about them or leave them in the water simply because they have no place to store them, said Serra Herndon, a Tampa Bay Watch environmental scientist.
The neglected traps become danger for dolphins, turtles and even boats. Tampa Bay Watch estimates that there are thousands of abandoned crab traps that have been accumulating in local waters for decades.
Tampa Bay Watch's Crab Trap Removal Program is the first organized effort in Florida. The group has done aerial surveys at least two or three times a year since 2004 to identify abandoned traps and organize cleanups. The main objective is to get them out of the water to reduce the chances of marine life getting caught and or boaters hitting them at low tide.
On one Saturday in late January, they got 80 traps out of Cockroach Bay. Other areas where significant numbers of traps were found include waters north of the Courtney Campbell Causeway (83 last February) and the Alafia River (313 since 2004.) To date, the group has rounded up at least 660 derelict traps.
But picking up old traps isn't as easy as having a boat and good intentions. Only state wildlife officers and designated groups such as Tampa Bay Watch are permitted to remove them. Compounding the issue is the blue crab season, which runs year-round.
A proposal to close the blue crab season in six regions of the state is pending before state officials. A designated off-season of up to 10 days each would make it easier to identify and retrieve lost and abandoned traps, proponents of the closed season say.
What does it take to orchestrate an crab-trap cleanup?
"A lot of planning," said Peter Clark, executive director of Tampa Bay Watch. "It's a cyclic event. Tides are important as well as staff time, volunteers and getting permits."
With help from the state fish and wildlife commission, the Florida Airboaters Association, county government and the community, it usually takes 12 to 18 months of planning and at least $25,000 to run a cleanup.
"Because of budget cuts, this year we have no support, we're doing it on our own," Clark said. "My hopes are that we can get our water quality clean enough to support healthy wildlife and habitat — enough to see the scallops come back and to see trout and redfish fisheries."