After five hours of scouring the blazing hot waters around Tampa Bay, Brittany Baldrica’s boat returned to the Belleair boat ramp Saturday afternoon with an impressive haul: 962 pounds of derelict crab traps.
Specifically, Baldrica and her two crewmates aboard the Nauti Girl returned to land with a tournament-winning 30 stone crab and blue crab traps, each abandoned, maybe for years, in the depths of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
The reward for winning the 2023 Ghost Trap Rodeo? A fishing rod, reel and a large cooler.
But the real reward, says marine biologist Baldrica, was leaving the waters around her beloved home cleaner than how she found them.
“It wasn’t about winning. It was about being able to remove all of those traps that otherwise would have just sat out there and would’ve continued to capture fish,” Baldrica, a senior rescue biologist at Clearwater Marine Aquarium, said in an interview Monday. “It was truly eye-opening.”
All told, more than 100 volunteers from several regional organizations scooped a whopping 260 traps from in and around Tampa Bay, for a debris haul totaling 8,384 pounds. That’s 260 traps around Fort De Soto and Belleair that will no longer lure in, and imprison, marine wildlife like mangrove snappers, juvenile groupers, starfish, pinfish, crabs of course, and a whole mess of other critters vital to life in Florida’s largest open-water estuary.
“Marine life routinely makes a home inside these boxes — which would be great if they weren’t getting trapped and dying due to starvation,” said Neill Holland, president of Ocean Aid 360 which has organized ghost trap “rodeos” yearly since its inaugural event in Tampa Bay in 2018.
Despite the summertime heat, the event was a smashing success, Holland said.
“We’re routinely surprised by the final outcome,” Holland told the Tampa Bay Times. “We’re oftentimes doubling the targets that we set for ourselves at the beginning of the project.”
How do fishers lose a (typically very large and heavy) trap? It’s more common than you might think.
Trappers will attach a line with a floating buoy on top so they can locate their catch when they return at a later date. But traps are often lost by storms, lose their lines from boat propeller strikes or simply fall prey to a trapper’s forgetfulness. What’s left is a “ghost trap” — a submerged terror that still captures and holds fish inside.
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Removing derelict traps from the seafloor is an important step to preventing what biologists call “ghost fishing,” or when a trap will continue to capture fish and other animals, leaving wildlife without the ability to hunt for food. When the trapped animals die, their decaying carcass lures in more hungry creatures, ultimately trapping those animals and continuing the harmful cycle. The trap, death, trap cycle can last years, according to Holland.
There’s a coveted sweet spot for pulling abandoned traps from the seafloor: Once every two years, state wildlife officials close the blue crab trapping season along Florida’s southwest coastline for a 10-day period. For Tampa Bay, that small window opens July 10 and ends July 19 every odd calendar year.
All crab traps need to be out of the water during that short pause — which makes finding the abandoned ones much easier. With few exceptions, if you see a crab trap in the water during the closure, it’s fair game for scooping. Like a mad dash for left-behind litter.
With an initial cash injection from the federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program, Ocean Aid 360 estimated as of earlier this year it slogged from the water more than 162,000 pounds of marine debris, including more than 2,500 crab traps. That number is surely higher now, after this weekend’s event in Tampa Bay followed by a separate event in South Florida’s Biscayne Bay a day later.
Most of the debris came from the Belleair Beach area, where 40 volunteers collected 146 traps weighing more than 5,200 pounds, according to data shared by Holland. Another 75 volunteers launched from Fort De Soto, where they gathered 114 traps weighing more than 3,100 pounds.
Tampa Bay Watch, the Tierra Verde-based restoration nonprofit headquartered near Fort De Soto, was out on the water for nearly five hours Saturday with boatloads, literally, of volunteers, according to Peter Clark, the organization’s founder and president.
While not in the form of a daylong tournament, Tampa Bay Watch has helped to pull derelict traps from Tampa Bay for the past two decades, Clark said. Since 2004, the nonprofit has pulled more than 2,500 pounds of abandoned traps.
“Traps that are not monitored by commercial fishermen can go on catching other fish and wildlife for years and years after they’ve been abandoned,” Clark said in an interview.
“That’s why it’s critically important to get traps out of the water so that we can protect our natural resources in Tampa Bay.”