Removing death traps

  • By Noah Haglund Herald Writer
  • Friday, May 13, 2011 12:01am
  • Local News

EVERETT — A pile of purplish Dungeness crab writhed inside the crusty metal cage pulled from the bottom of Port Gardner, not far from Naval Station Everett.

On deck, a man in waterproof gear counted the catch, checked each critter for gender, size and signs of life — then he threw them back

overboard.

No, the boat’s crew wasn’t out fishing for dinner. This collection of scientists, marine experts and government employees was after the traps. Their aim was to clean up some of the derelict crab pots littering the waters west of Everett and to study how quickly they’re accumulatin

g.

“It’s just an ongoing issue,” said Ginny Broadhurst, director of the Northwest Straits Initiative, the nonprofit that oversaw the work. “We decided to focus on one area where we knew there was a good chance of a high density of pots.”

When it comes to crabbing, there’s good news compared to some other marine species: local populations of Dungeness crab are healthy. Several recent excursions by the Skagit County-based Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative sought to make the Dungeness crab community a bit healthier. It happened thanks to $50,000 in state crab-license money set aside to retrieve lost or abandoned pots and with help from Snohomish County’s Marine Resources Committee.

The hope is that future generations will continue to enjoy crustacean delicacies for the price of a license and a minimal amount of equipment. It’s a pastime Tom Hoban Sr., 75, has savored since he was about 10.

“It’s easier to catch crab than it is to catch salmon,” he said. “You just need $30 worth of gear and an old chicken bone.”

Plus, there’s the payoff.

“It’s choice meat, it’s the best seafood I’ve ever had,” he said.

From his home on Tulalip’s Mission Beach, Hoban sits in a perfect spot to indulge this passion. Port Gardner off Everett’s waterfront and Port Susan between Camano Island and the mainland are some of the most productive crabbing waters in the region.

Steve Burton, a crab biologist with the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, called those areas a “very rich crab ground, and it’s just very popular by virtue of where it’s located.”

“The population is amazingly stable and has been for years,” Burton said.

Locals have taken notice; nearly a quarter of the 230,000 crab endorsements sold in Washington last year were to people who live in Snohomish or Island counties.

Of course there’s a catch. To keep on crabbing, it’s crucial for people use the right techniques. That lessens the chance of losing crab pots to the deep and entombing crabs in underwater death traps.

One of the most important practices is using escape cord, also called a rot cord. It’s rope made of material such as cotton or hemp that will disintegrate underwater within a few months, allowing the cage to reopen. That should allow crabs to escape, rather than leaving them to die inside and become bait that lures more crustaceans in. Studies have shown that crabs can live for about 50 days stuck inside a pot.

About 20 percent of pots the Northwest Straits Initiative finds aren’t properly set up with escape cord, Broadhurst said. That number used to be around 30 percent a few years ago, which she takes as a sign that educational messages have gotten through.

Other important measures to lower the risk of losing traps are to use the correct amount of line to drop a trap and avoid shipping or ferry lanes.

Snohomish County’s Marine Resources Committee, Washington State University’s Beach Watchers program and volunteers plan to further the educational efforts when crabbing season opens on July 1. They’re preparing waterproof packets containing samples of escape cord, a ruler to ensure crabs are of legal size and informational brochures.

“We’ve done a lot of education and outreach for the past five years,” said Kathleen Herrmann, a county surface water management employee who works with the marine committee.

Since 2002, the Northwest Straits Initiative has overseen the removal of more than 3,800 old fishing nets and more than 2,000 crab pots from Puget Sound.

The pots are less deadly to marine life than old fishing nets, which have killed thousands upon thousands of animals in Puget Sound, including birds and mammals. Improved technology and a steep decline in the fishing industry, however, means not as many nets are being abandoned.

“They’re more of a legacy issue,” Broadhurst said. “Once we get those nets out of there, the new contribution of nets is minimal.”

Crab pots, while they only tend to kill crabs, are still being lost at a fairly steady rate.

An estimated 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in the Puget Sound and adjoining marine waters, according to a study by the state Department of Fish and Wildlife, the University of Washington and Seattle-based Natural Resources Consultants. Each derelict pot, in turn, is thought to kill at least 10 crabs per year. The study concluded that each year abandoned pots kill 129,000 legal, harvestable male crabs with a market value of around $800,000.

Last week, a crew headed out on the Surveyor II, a boat owned by Fenn Enterprises of Seattle.

The boat stopped each time Bryan DeLong, a biologist, found they were over one of the pots they had identified early this year using side-scan sonar. Then, deckhands dropped a 35-pound dumbbell into the water. A diver, 22-year-old Erik Hazelton, slid into the water afterward.

When the weight hits the sea bottom, it sends creatures scurrying away and raises up a plume of sand 30 or so feet wide.

“It’s like you’re in a really thick dust cloud,” Hazelton said.

That forces him to walk in circles on the dark sea bottom, trailing about 10 feet of rope to snag the nearby crab pot. In some areas of Port Gardner, visibility was down to about a foot, in others, about 7 feet.

At various spots, Hazelton emerged from the cold blue-gray water and signaled for the boat to return to hoist up crab pots, square ones, round ones and octagonal ones, many of them filled with mud or colonized by anemones.

The Straits Initiative keeps a log to inventory the type of gear removed and any animals found inside, live or dead. On Tuesday of last week, they focused on a cluster in relatively shallow waters, from 16 to 62 feet deep.

Over several outings since late April, the project removed 143 of the 164 crab pots they identified with sonar. Those pots held 99 live crabs. The same areas had been cleaned most recently in 2009.

Noah Haglund: 425-339-3465, nhaglund@heraldnet.com.

Crab season

Dungeness crab season starts at 7 a.m. July 1 and runs through Sept. 5. This year, the schedule has changed, with crabbing allowed Thursday through Monday.

To learn more about derelict crab pots and other fishing gear, go to www.derelictgear.org. Information on fishing licenses and crabbing endorsements is available from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife at http://wdfw.wa.gov/fishing.

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