As a veteran diver and recreational fisherman, Skip Zinck is used to dodging junk that dots the surface of the Chesapeake Bay and the mouths of its rivers.
But there's one kind of debris lurking below the surface that really spooks him: ghost pots.
Tens of thousands of derelict crab pots - enough to fill every bleacher seat at Camden Yards for 23 games - litter the shallows of the main stem of the bay.
The traps, usually set adrift by storms, are potential deathtraps for fish, terrapins and crabs - and a threat to the bay's fragile ecology. They're a major headache for fishermen and boaters, who call them "floating mines" for their ability to disrupt navigation and foul boat propellers. And they're a financial burden for commercial watermen, who must not only replace the lost traps but might also be competing against them for crabs.
Eliminating the problem is not easy, as similar efforts from Massachusetts to Hawaii have shown. Recapturing the ghost pots is likely to be expensive and dangerous. Grappling hooks used in the salvage effort could also damage the floor of the bay.
A new survey by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that at least 42,000 ghost pots have settled at the bottom of popular commercial and recreational fishing areas in Maryland such as the mouth of the Wye River and Crab Alley on the Eastern Shore and the West and Rhode rivers on the Western Shore.
"We all lose fishing gear on them," says Zinck as he carefully maneuvers around a crab pot marker that has drifted into the middle of the boating channel leading from the Sandy Point State Park marina to the bay. "They are accidents just waiting to happen."
Zinck noses his boat above the Bay Bridge and anchors near Sandy Point Light. Wiggling into a wetsuit, goggles and respirator, he dives over the side and reappears 10 minutes later with a ghost pot in tow. Inside are a small blue crab and a handful of fish. He disappears and returns with another pot, this one caved in, most likely by a boat.
"How many more do you want to see?" he asks.
Steve Giordano, fisheries program manager for NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, calls the survey estimate "a conservative number. We stand by this number. We think it could be higher, but we wanted a safe number that we could feel a great deal of confidence in."
Commercial crabbers lose pots when boat propellers and rudders or storms tear them free from floating markers and lines. Intense storms such as Isabel in 2003 and Ernesto last year only exacerbate the problem.
Concentrations of untended crab pots, buoys and lines are found primarily in waters less than 30 feet, where watermen work. The NOAA sonar scan of a nearly half-mile-square area in the South River just below Annapolis revealed 120 ghost pots. A scan of a 5-square-mile area of the West and Rhode rivers indicated nearly 1,000 ghost pots.
Ghost pot `myths'
Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen's Association, questions the NOAA survey numbers and complaints from the recreational community, calling them "myths and a lot of stuff that's not true."
"That number is way high. I don't think it's nearly as bad as they make out," says Simns. "They've got the public behind them because it creates jobs."
But more important than the number of abandoned pots is whether they are having an impact on bay life, says Giordano.
"The range of bycatch species is quite wide: fin fish, crabs, mammals and terrapins," he says. "About 70 to 75 percent of these traps are intact and are capable of ghost fishing. The questions now are how many pots are ghost fishing, and how are those pots affecting mortality rates?"
The crab pots' killing potential is raising concerns among state officials and conservation and recreational fishing groups.
Ken Lewis, legislative liaison for Coastal Conservation Association Maryland, says ghost pots are being discussed with an eye toward next year's General Assembly session.
"This would be a wanton waste of our crab and fish resources. If these pots can't be recovered, it's not unreasonable to think that we ought to make every effort to stop their progression, perhaps require biodegradable materials," Lewis says. "The Department of Natural Resources should do something on its own, but if we have to go to the legislature with this, I think it's a slam-dunk."
Eric Schwaab, DNR deputy secretary, says that won't be necessary.
"It is a significant number," Schwaab says. "We know this is an issue for boaters and fishermen. We're not going to wait until we have the second piece of the puzzle - the effect. Just the sheer number suggests some kind of management response by us."
Schwaab say he intends to meet with watermen and recreational anglers and boaters to begin assessing the viability of removing the derelicts and, perhaps, making the pots more biodegradable.