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.
As of 2005, the state had 5,981 licensed commercial crabbers, 30 percent of whom were active and full time. The number of pots in the bay fluctuates with the season, but averages about 150,000 per day. In June 2004, an estimated 163,000 licensed pots were active on the Maryland portion of the bay, according to the DNR. This June, there were a little more than half that many.
Watermen say they have a lot to lose when pots go missing.
Brian Abt, a commercial crabber for 34 years, loses 10 percent to 30 percent of his 300 pots each season while supplying Baltimore-area restaurants. It costs him $20 to make a pot from mesh wire and steel rebar and up to $35 to buy one.
"Sure you get people who say, 'This isn't for me,' and abandon their gear. But the guys who are in it for life, they're not about to let money sit behind. That cuts into the profit margin," he explains. "When the guys pull their pots in the fall and don't see any floats, they assume they're all out or the remaining ones have broken free. They don't abandon them."
Abt, 48, has heard the talk about the ecological harm caused by ghost fishing and isn't buying it.
"I have to power-wash my pots every three weeks to keep the growth off. I guarantee you if you pull up a fouled pot, you won't find anything near them. That's why we have to clean them because otherwise a crab won't go near them."
Still, Simns, Abt and other watermen say they aren't opposed to finding a way to reduce loss and recover lost pots.
Derelict fishing gear - nets, lobster traps and crab pots - is a problem around the nation, according to NOAA's Marine Debris Program. Federal fisheries officials estimate that each year 250,000 traps break free and settle in the Gulf of Mexico. In Washington, where hundreds of tons of fishing gear clutters Puget Sound, state fisheries managers have created a phone and online hot line to report derelicts. A Louisiana study put the blue crab mortality rate at 4 million to 10 million animals.
A decade ago, the Chesapeake Bay Blue Crab Fishery Management Plan called attention to the potential problem but concluded that there was no way to determine its extent.
Two years ago, Congress paved the way for serious study when it appropriated $5 million to assess the magnitude of the problem and begin efforts to find and retrieve discarded fishing gear.
About the same time, Giordano and a survey team were using side-scan sonar at the mouth of the South River to map fish habitat. Tiny black squares appeared on the gray background of the scan - crab pots - but there were no markers on the water's surface.
Possessing the technology to locate pots, however, only got Giordano halfway. He needed to know where to look.
The DNR supplied the road map, turning over to NOAA three years of data on commercial activity, including location and monthly deployment of pots.
Now Giordano is trying to determine how ghost pots fish. Pots set up on the West River near the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center are being monitored for animals that become ensnared and die. The wire enclosures are being assessed for how quickly they degrade.
If the pots, generally about the size of a large microwave oven, are claiming large numbers of crabs and fish, reclamation might be required. But that is a time-consuming and expensive proposition.
In June, NOAA and Massachusetts commercial fishermen formed a partnership to retrieve ghost gear so that it can be studied to determine how it got lost and how loss might be prevented. A joint effort last year between conservation groups and watermen in Texas recovered more than 8,000 traps.
Brandon White, a recreational angler and Web master of the site tidalfish.com, would like to rally Maryland fishermen and divers to conduct a similar sweep after Dec. 15, when watermen remove their pots until spring.
"We have a problem out there that's a danger to boaters. I don't want to wait until after there's a accident," says White. "We have all this pollution going into the bay, and here's this manmade stuff being added to it."
But Giordano urges caution, noting that using grappling hooks to snare the traps might tear up the bay bottom and cause more damage than the pots themselves. Divers would have to battle frigid waters and limited visibility while raising a single pot at a time.
Armed with NOAA's maps showing where ghost pots are, watermen could be put to work in the off season recovering them, Simns says. All the state has to do is alter the salvage laws to allow watermen to keep what they find and provide compensation for their time and fuel.
"We'll work it out," says Simns. "We'd like to see no pots abandoned."