GALLOWAY, N.J. (AP) - Fishermen call them ghost traps, and the hulks do look a little scary when they break the surface of Great Bay: hairy with marine growth, packed with muck and sometimes remains of long-dead crabs.
Now in its second year, a cooperative project between Great Bay crabbers and scientists at Richard Stockton College has recovered hundreds of lost crab traps, using once specialized side-scan sonar technology that allows baymen to literally see cubical traps on the bay bottom, as if they had floodlights and glass bottoms on their boats.
It’s one of several projects funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to recover lost fishing traps, reducing the loss of marine life they cause and the navigational hazard to boaters, who can run across lost traps and damage their boats.
Crabbers who work on the project said they’ve discovered something else: side-scan sonar can be a good business investment for them.
“For the lousy $1,500 this unit costs, you can get most of your pots back,” Warren Unkert told the Asbury Park Press (https://bit.ly/1dHAFET). He was out recently with his wife, Karen, hunting lost traps.
The husband and wife crabbing team said their trap losses went from 50 or 60 a season down to five last year because the Humminbird sonar unit enabled them to track down the pots before they were damaged or deteriorated.
“That’s worth a lot of money,” Kathy Unkert said. Crab traps cost at least $25 each and are a major annual investment for baymen. The Unkerts fabricate their own traps to hold down costs, so the sonar saves them time as well as money.
Last year’s roundup netted about 500 traps and “we’re going to get another 500” in the 2014 effort, said Mark Sullivan, an associate professor of marine science at Stockton and one of the principal investigators on the project along with colleague Steve Evert.
The researchers started out by systematically mapping parts of Great Bay with side-scan sonar, and noting the location of crab traps as waypoints - chart coordinates that can be transferred to the sonar units on crabbers’ boats, which have integrated navigational computers that use the Global Positioning System satellite signals. They ventured north into the southern end of the Barnegat Bay estuary, and saw hundreds of traps there too, Sullivan said.
“Last year, they were so thick we’d just load up their Humminbirds with waypoints,” Sullivan said. “We imaged about 1,500 pots.”
Now the team is ranging around, looking for scattered pots they missed - often deeper in the mud, and harder to spot on the sonar.
“We’re finding it’s more difficult to find pots,” Sullivan said. On April 12, they will have volunteers come in to clean-up traps for re-use, and recycle the unusable ones.
“You look at these and not as many are usable anymore,” Sullivan said.
When the Unkerts locate a trap, they circle around and toss out a line with small grappling hooks of Warren’s design - big galvanized nails that he bends into hooks, and welds to pieces of 3/8-inch pipe with a line through them. Once snagged, they loop the line on a deck cleat, and rev the 150-horsepower Honda outboard engine to drag the trap out of the mud.
One part of the project is a video now in production to show crabbers how they can recover traps using these techniques. And there’s an effort to educate recreational crabbers on properly rigging their pots so they are less likely to get lost, and show boaters how to avoid entanglements with traps.
“We try to show people we’re all players in the system, and we can work together,” said Melanie Reding, education coordinator for the Jacques Cousteau National Marine Estuary Reserve.
There is an online component to that effort at www.wecrabnj.org.
Information from: Asbury Park (N.J.) Press, https://www.app.com
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