On using escape cord, what’s the catch? More crab

Published on Thu, Aug 21, 2008 by Sonia Hurt

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On using escape cord, what’s the catch? More crab

By Sonia Hurt

Summertime in the Puget Sound region can be sheer bliss. For many people the only thing that can improve upon the mild sunny days and the beautiful scenery is the pleasure of pulling a heavy crab pot out of the cold, cold water.

You climb into your boat and motor or paddle out, hoping to get your limit and return home with a feast of equal parts flavor and feisty attitude. Imagine your disappointment when you can’t find your pot!

Crab pots get lost now and then. Recreational pots are small enough to be swept out to deeper water by strong currents and are also lost from time to time when a passing boat cuts the buoy line.

In addition to the tragic damper they put on your potluck plans, lost pots pose a two-fold problem crab – they can damage the super productive eelgrass beds that crab, along with other marine critters too numerous to list, call home; they can continue to ghost fish for a very long time. 

Using a biodegradable escape cord on your pots ensures that lost pots won’t harvest too many crab that could have otherwise been on your dinner table.

Crabbing is big in our Washington waters and it’s been big for a long time. Long before the first European set eyes on this place, the Coast Salish people were sustained by abundant seafood including crab for time out of mind. 

Crab have been harvested commercially since the late 1800s, and Dungeness crab is still one of Washington’s most important commercial fisheries. Not surprisingly, it’s also one of our most popular pastimes.

In 2007, the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife estimates that recreational crabbers bagged almost 500,000 pounds of crab from around the San Juan and Whidbey islands, and the waters from Blaine to Edmonds. That’s 277,000 tasty crustaceans boiled, buttered, baked, or fried. Recreational crabbers know a good deal when they see one.

Those who set their pots or wade out into the eelgrass in pursuit of their prey get a taste of both the beauty and the bounty of our inland sea.  Unlike salmon, whose numbers have dwindled dramatically over the last 100 years, catching crab is still a pretty sure thing.  In many places around the Northwest Straits and Puget Sound, if you set your pot, they will come. 

Long-time Birch Bay resident and WSU Beach Watcher Gerald Larson remembers when recreational crabbing was open seven days a week and required no license. People simply set out with their pots, their ring-nets, or their bare hands to pull crabs from the sea for their table.

Now the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife works hard to set quotas and define a limited fishing season for both commercial and recreational crabbing. But the effort seems to be paying off. In spite of a big increase in the number of recreational licenses sold over the last five years, the limit is only slightly less than what it once was, and crab are still there for the catching.

The abundance of our crab is a big part of what draws Todd Schuster, owner of Gato Verde Adventure Sailing - that and the outstanding flavor, of course. He likes the fact that the crab fishery is well managed and that unlike other types of sport fishing, you can usually bank on a successful outing.  Your chances are even better if you broaden your taste horizons. 

Most folks prefer the Dungeness crab but Todd said he thinks the red rock crabs are tastier. He figures most people don’t go for them because there’s less meat in the legs compared to the Dungeness. But he doesn’t mind that because the claws are huge. 

Even though the view from the boat is still beautiful and the crab are still filling our pots, accumulated derelict crab pots and other fishing gear pose a real threat to the harvest and to all of our Puget Sound fish and wildlife.  Up to 70 crab can be wasted every year in each active ghost-pot according to one estimate by Jeff June with Natural Resources Consultant’s, Inc. 

He based his estimate on the lost pots he found while doing dive surveys in the Port Gardner area for the Northwest Straits Commission. When he peeked below the surface at Port Gardner he found a lot of lost pots, too many of them filled with freshly caught crab.

In fact, the Northwest Straits Commission is discovering a distressing number of lost pots and other derelict fishing gear throughout Puget Sound. Not surprisingly the amount of derelict gear is highest in the best fishing and crabbing areas. 

The Northwest Straits Commission, which was authorized by Congress in 1988 to fund and train volunteer led marine resource committees in seven counties around the Georgia Strait, the Strait Juan de Fuca, and Puget Sound, has been taking a closer look at the problem with dive and sonar surveys, and also removal efforts.
The commission estimates that 14,000 to 20,000 additional crab pots have accumulated in Puget Sound over just the last 3 to 5 years alone. In some areas, the ghost pots outnumber the active recreational and commercial pots.

Excess crab mortality is a loss to our harvest and it’s also a loss to the whole marine food web. It seems that we’re not the only ones who savor the delectable Dungeness. Crab larvae look like little space aliens to me, but apparently they taste delicious to all manner of little fishes including juvenile salmon.

So, when we lose crabs to ghost pots and habitat damage we also lose fish who could otherwise be growing fat, one larval lunch at a time.

Since the little fishes feed the bigger fishes, seals, birds and orcas, the loss reverberates up the food chain, impoverishing the whole system.

Ghost nets are also wreaking havoc underwater. Commercial fishermen lose nets from time to time due to mechanical failure, bad weather, or bad luck. Back then the nets would degrade because they were made of organic materials.

Modern nets, however, persist for a very long time. Since 2002, the commission has removed 604 derelict fishing nets covering 120 acres of marine habitat, which had entrapped and killed thousands of fish, birds and marine mammals.

By their estimates, this is the tip of the iceberg and thus they are continuing their removal efforts.

In addition to the Northwest Straits Commission’s important clean up work, there are several things that individuals can do to help.

Preventing lost pots to begin with is an excellent place to start. Be sure to use highly visible buoys so that passing boaters can avoid cutting your line accidentally.

Also, use the right length of line and make sure it’s weighted so that it’s less likely to become entangled in propellers. And, of course, deploy your pots out of the general way of boat traffic.

But, pots will still be lost from time to time so it’s best to be prepared. Escape cord is the plan B approach to lost pots. Escape cord is small diameter untreated cotton cord (or another natural material) that is used to fasten the pot’s lid or the escape hatch built into the pot.

When submerged in salt water, the escape cord will degrade within 9 to 16 weeks. Some crab will probably be lost during that time, but this is far better than the alternative: Synthetic cord can take decades or possibly hundreds of years to decompose. Escape cord is a simple way to keep lost pots from turning into lost harvest and lost wildlife.

If your pot is lost or you come across derelict pots, nets or other gear, now you can call someone and tell them. The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife has created a no-fault reporting hotline, and an on-line reporting form that anyone can use to report lost gear.

Since its full implementation in 2005, the hotline and on-line reporting site have received a steady stream of reports on lost gear, with about half of the reports coming from commercial fishermen and the other half coming from recreational and tribal fishermen.

These reports are incredibly valuable and will help to guide future survey and removal work. Never try to remove lost gear yourself as it poses a serious safety hazard. Divers have become entangled and drowned in fishing gear.

This summer WSU Extension Beach Watchers, in partnership with the Northwest Straits Commission, will be handing out free samples of escape cord, and talking to people about lost gear and the no-fault reporting line. Look for our friendly faces at a busy boat launch near you!

For more information about WSU Beach Watchers and the Northwest Straits Commission’s derelict gear removal efforts, visit www.beachwatchers.wsu.edu or www.nwstraits.org.