On a day when he could have been out oystering, waterman Mike Edwards trolled the Chesapeake Bay south of Annapolis on Friday for a different quarry. Sitting at the wheel of his workboat, the Miss Renee Two, he felt a "nudge" on the line he was towing astern and winched it in to discover he'd hooked a mucky but otherwise intact crab pot. A lone oyster toadfish lay trapped inside.
"I got one this time," said Edwards - meaning the pot, rather than the fish.
Edwards, 53, of Grasonville is part of a small navy of watermen who have been hired by the state Department of Natural Resources this winter to pull derelict crab pots from the water. So far, they've hauled nearly 1,500 of the box-shaped wire-mesh crab traps from the bottom. Many are mangled or in pieces, but others are still in good shape, some with a dead crab or two in them.
Officials say the effort is helping to improve the health of the bay while also providing watermen with work at a time when there's not much for them to catch. The project is expected to cost $1 million, financed out of $15 million in federal disaster relief funds granted the state last year after the blue crab harvest declined. The lost pots can be death traps for the bay's crabs and fish.
More than 360 watermen are participating in the effort so far, which began Feb. 22 and runs until the beginning of crabbing season April 1. The state contracts to pay each waterman $400 a day for five days' work, plus another $150 daily for a helper.
"By the time you take the fuel [cost] out, you don't make a lot of money," said Fred Gieseker of Stevensville, who was working with Edwards. "But it's better than sitting at home fighting with the wife," the 67-year-old retired policeman said with a laugh, adding that he's been married for 45 years.
Both men have been harvesting crabs in the summer for decades, though they catch the crustaceans using a baited "trotline" and dip net, rather than the crab pots they've been retrieving.
Upward of 20 boats worked the mouth of the West and Rhode rivers off Shady Side on Friday, cruising around and across the water in a free-form nautical ballet. Edwards and Gieseker dragged a trio of fist-size grappling hooks across the bottom, their trawls guided by a map of the area showing hundreds of dots. The dots indicate possible locations of lost crab pots or other underwater protrusions picked up with side-scan sonar, which can detect the shapes of objects on the bay bottom. Working with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, scientists with Versar, a Columbia consulting firm, had gone out earlier using the sonar to chart likely concentrations of lost crabbing gear.
The entrance to the two Anne Arundel County rivers was one of the spots in the bay where the sonar survey picked up high concentrations of likely lost crab pots. Ward Slacum, a Versar marine scientist, estimated there were a couple of thousand suspicious objects picked up there by the sonar. Other watermen pulled pots from the Patapsco and Patuxent river mouths.
Dubbed "ghost" pots, they can continue to catch crabs and fish for a year or more after they go missing, biologists say. A 2007 federal survey estimated there were 42,000 derelict pots in the Maryland waters of the bay. Though some watermen disputed that figure at the time, fieldwork done since then with the side-scan sonar suggests the total could be even higher.
It's not surprising, considering the scale of crabbing in the bay. Hundreds of thousands of crab pots are deployed at the height of crabbing season, fisheries regulators estimate. In a 1990 survey, commercial crabbers indicated they lose 10 percent to 30 percent of their gear every year.
Officials say they doubt watermen are being careless or abandoning the pots, which cost $20 to $30 each. Instead, most pots are probably lost when unwitting pleasure boaters cruise over them, officials say, with the propellers cutting the lines that tether the pots to buoys marking their location on the water. Storms also likely move some pots and sever them from their buoys.
Recreational fishermen and others worry that the number of derelict pots might pose a threat to the bay's abundance. The retrieval effort is attempting to get a better handle on such questions, as every waterman is required to log where each pot was recovered, its condition and what if any marine life was found inside.
A similar project is in its second year in Virginia, also financed with $1 million in federal disaster relief funds. There, 66 watermen are paid $300 a day, plus fuel costs, to scour the bottom from December through March. They also are supplied with side-scan sonar and digital cameras so they can find the pots more readily and record their condition more precisely. Crews recovered 8,800 crab and eel pots last winter and have picked up a similar number so far this season, according to data from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.