For years, environmentalists and watermen have been searching for a way to deal with the Chesapeake Bay's "ghost pots" — derelict crab traps that are too deep to retrieve and too problematic to co-exist with marine life. Though the traps have been abandoned, they continue to ensnare and kill crabs.
Now two Anne Arundel County high school seniors have developed a possible solution: a trap held together with zinc rings that decay, making abandoned traps fall apart at the bottom of the bay.
"Leave it kids to find a great solution for a serious problem," said Tony Friedrich, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland. "There are a lot of derelict pots out there and we know that it's not great for the resource, so the more we get something to make them collapsible, the better off we are."
Crab traps become abandoned when they get separated from lines that tie them to buoys — propeller blades, harsh weather and other factors can cause them to separate from lines. They sink to the bay floor, where they endanger crabs and other species. With few viable ways to retrieve them, the traps have long been a bane of the crabbing industry, undermining yields for fishermen not only in Maryland but in crabbing regions worldwide.
A 2008 study by the Annapolis-based Chesapeake Bay Office of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that more than 85,000 ghost crab traps were on the bottom of the Maryland portion of the Chesapeake Bay.
That year U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski led the way in ensuring that the state secured $15 million in crab disaster relief funds from NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Services to help the commercial fishing industry and bolster the crab population. A portion of the funds was earmarked for such projects as retrieving abandoned crab pots and crab pot fragments. Watermen hired to head the removal process retrieved 8,000 pots or pot fragments over a two-month period, according to information from the governor's office.
"A lot of people don't know what a big issue it is," said Luke Andraka, 18, one of the North County High School students who worked on the ghost pot issue. "It's an incredible number of crabs that are dying every year, and the amazing part to me is that in Maryland, this is a huge issue, but in other areas, like in the Gulf of Mexico, this is an incredible problem."
As part of an academic science competition, Andraka and Dana Lunkenheimer, 17, first attempted to come up with a trap that would come to the surface after nine months under water. But they decided that would be dangerous to boaters and swimmers, and abandoned the idea. Instead, they focused on making the traps fall apart.
"While removing traps should also be a priority, it is clearly not the best option for stopping derelict crab traps from fishing," said the students in their contest entry. "To tackle this problem, we decided to redesign the common crab trap so it couldn't continue to fish if it was lost for more than nine months."
Andraka, who lives in Crownsville, proposed creating a trap with rings made of zinc — a metal often used at the bottom of boats as a sacrificial anode, which decomposes to prevent the other metal surfaces from corroding.
The zinc rings would essentially dissolve in about eight months, he said, making the traps fall apart and lessening the risk to marine life. The students tested their hypothesis by attaching zinc rings to a steel plate and placing it in water from the Chesapeake. Over time the steel appeared pristine while the zinc significantly corroded. They didn't have a full eight-month period to test it, but were able to extrapolate that the rings wouldn't last beyond a normal crabbing season.
Steven Giordano, director of field science operations at NOAA's Chesapeake Bay office, helped students with background on the problem. Though he did not work directly with the students on the project and had not seen their finished product, he thought their approach was a step in the right direction.
"That's really the perfect approach, and that's largely what I tried to get them to think about," Giordano said. NOAA's study examined potential solutions, including retrieving derelict traps, preventing the loss of traps and mitigating the impact of lost traps, he said, adding, "The most reasonable approach is that [last] approach."
Mick Blackistone, executive director of the Maryland Watermen's Association, congratulated the students on "a development that may expand to the commercial crabbing industry to allow us to eliminate the problem of ghost pots, which is not only extensive in Maryland and Virginia but it's very expensive."
Blackistone said the association would consider meeting with the students to discuss their invention. While many factors are to blame for lost traps, he said, the primary problems are storms and other weather-related incidents.
The students' effort was part of the We Can Change the World Challenge, an annual national competition involving high school teams that identify environmental problems and come up with solutions. With a second-place finish, Andraka and Lunkenheimer split a $25,000 scholarship and earned such prizes as e-book readers. North County High School received a $2,500 grant.
North County High research and data analysis teacher Joe Pfistner, who mentored the students during the project, said the school hopes to gain grant funding to construct the traps and send them into the bay.
In addition to designing the crab traps, Andraka and Lunkenheimer met with watermen and business leaders about their efforts. They gave presentations to more than 2,000 students. In the fall, Andraka will head to Virginia Tech and Lunkenheimer will enroll at Anne Arundel Community College, but both say they will help Pfistner and other students take their efforts to the next step.
"There's only so much we can do for right now, but we want to pass it on," Andraka said.
The contest is run by Siemens Corp. and Discovery Education.
Mary Rollins, vice president of Discovery Education, said the North County students' project drew praise because it tackled a problem in their community.
"We know that crabbing and other industries that rely on water are important to Maryland's economy," Rollins said. "These kids took a look right in their own backyard to come up with a relatively simple solution to a multifaceted problem. That's what the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge is all about, empowering kids to find solutions"
The students have become passionate about tackling a problem they were scarcely aware of until Andraka read about it in a newspaper. They said they've both fished on the bay, but had no knowledge of the crab-trap issue.
"Everybody should get from [the study that] even if it's a problem that you really don't know much about, you can still do something about it ... " said Lunkenheimer, who lives in Severn. "If you'll just do research you can find out anything you want."
Others have been working on the ghost trap issue. Giordano said that NOAA helped fund a team of Virginia Institute of Marine Science researchers who have experimented with using biodegradable materials for a crab-trap hatch that would dissolve and allow animals to escape.
"It is not a requirement for fishermen to do that yet," Giordano added. "In many parts of the country, including in Puget Sound in the Northwest Passage, a lot of the Northeast and several states in the Gulf Coast, they have a biodegradable requirement."
In recent years, Giordano said, the concern has become more of a focal point locally. He added, "Everybody knew the traps were being lost, people thought they were degrading really rapidly and we showed that was not the case."
Tom O'Connell, director of the Maryland Fisheries Service, said fisheries managers and watermen would welcome the development of such crab traps.
"If there's a way to make the pots biodegradable — or at least compartments of traps to be biodegradable so they don't constantly trap and kill animals — I think that's something people would be interested in," he said.
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Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.