Stockton Helps Find and Recycle Ghost Crab Pots

Nearly 1,200 Lost Traps Hauled From Bays in Two Years
By PAT JOHNSON | May 03, 2017
Photo by: Pat Johnson (From left to right) Steve Evert, Pete Straub and Mark Sullivan of Stockton University display chart of their project and commercial crabbers Warren and Karen Unkert stand in front of a pile of reclaimed, 'ghost' crab traps.

Steve Evert, director of the Stockton Marine Science Field Station in Port Republic, was grilling hamburgers and cooking oysters in their shells as a continuous, gentle rain fell over the grounds of the station on Saturday. Students from Stockton’s Fishery Science class were eating lunch and drying out in the open shed, waiting for the rain to lift before continuing their work through the afternoon.

They were participating in the last year of a two-year National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration grant to remove marine debris in the form of “ghost” crab pots that litter the bottom of most coastal bays in New Jersey. The $241,597 grant that began in April 2015 was jointly funded by NOAA and with in-kind services from Stockton University. It built upon an earlier two-year grant from NOAA that started the project.

The website states, “Sunken crab traps severed from their buoy lifelines, often called ghost pots, slowly corrode in the saline waters and haunt the muddy floors of Atlantic coastal bays as they continue to trap sea life and pose threats to boaters.”

From 2012 to 2014, Stockton’s Marine Science Field Station and crabbers from the community recovered 1,166 ghost pots, weighing 7.89 metric tons, from the Mullica River-Great Bay Estuary.

The second round of funding also provided sonar training to local crabbers to help them retrieve their own lost crab traps.

Warren and Karen Unkert from Hammonton have been commercially crabbing the Mullica River estuary, which includes Great Bay, for 24 of their 30 married years. Already this April, this has been one of their better years, said Warren.

“It’s been the best since ’05,” he said. “I believe it’s the natural cycle, but maybe it’s because we’ve been cleaning up the bays.”

The Unkerts put 200 crab pots in the water everyday and have been catching 15 to 20 bushels of crabs a day. “The average is 6 to 10,” said Warren. They were very happy to participate in the ghost crab trap retrieval project – each one of their traps cost $25 to build, and they lose between 30 and 50 pots a season.

“We build our own traps,” said Karen. “It’s a lot of work and it’s not good to lose them.”

“Boats snap the lines,” said Warren. “Someone will be drift fishing and they catch the line and drag it. And then they start the motor and snap the line.”

“Or some recreational boaters won’t know what the floats are and will just run right over them,” said Karen. “They are pretty oblivious out there. We’ve seen boaters drive right up on the meadows – not looking.”

With the side-sonar technology they were given as part of the federal grant project, they can often find the traps the next day.

“We know our own traps. We have them corked and tagged,” said Warren.

Peter Straub, dean of the Stockton School of Natural Sciences, said he and Evert first conceived the project to retrieve the ghost pots because they were seeing them all over the bottom of the muddy bays. “It was during our Scientific Diving and Underwater Survey Methods courses – we were looking at the bottom and there were all these square things. ‘What the heck are these things?’ They were crab pots, tons of them. They had no buoys attached to them.

“We first tried to pull them up while diving, but they were sunk into the mud. We had to hook them and try and pull them out. When we mapped the whole area, we saw there were hundreds of them.

“NOAA has a marine debris program to retrieve lobster pots in Maine and crab traps in the Chesapeake. So we decided to make a project in our own area,” said Straub.

The best way to approach the problem was to enlist the help of the commercial crabbers. “They have the boats and the smarts. They know how to hook the traps and swing the boat around to retrieve them from the mud. Paying our crabbers during the off-season also helps the community of commercial crabbers.”

Besides the Unkerts, there are only about four other commercial crabbers plying the local waters from Barnegat Bay to the Mullica. Warren said he and Karen leave their house in Hammonton around 3:30 in the morning to get to the Philips’ Dock on Oyster Creek, Port Republic around 5 a.m., and are out on the bay at 6. They crab for six to seven hours, weather permitting.

“It’s very hard work,” said Karen. “Anyone getting into this in their 50s might think again. I grew up in Maine, so I knew.”

The Unkerts also are one of the few fisher folk doing their own shedding operation. “We grow our soft-shells off the water in our shedding barns in Hammonton,” said Warren. “We make our own saltwater – it’s salt and water, it’s not rocket science,” he added.

Karen showed how a waterman can tell when a crab is about to shed or molt. “You look here on the flipper, and if it’s white or bright red, it’s ready to bust.”

Mark Sullivan, professor of marine science, said his students were taking data from the traps to help educate the recreational fishermen and boaters about the debris problem they create when they ignore the crab buoys and snap the crabbers’ lines. They can tell from the rope if its been severed by a propeller or if the buoy was substandard.

“We’re also working with the Jacques Cousteau Estuarine Research Reserve in Tuckerton to educate the recreational crabbers about the way to safely rig a crab trap,” said Sullivan. “We’ve seen some pretty funny things used as buoys, like swimming pool noodles and empty bleach bottles.”

The students were also checking on whether the turtle extruders were intact. Turtle extruders are a mandatory piece of equipment to keep state-threatened diamondback terrapins out of the traps so they don’t drown.

The Stockton team partnered with Fred Akers, administrator for the Great Egg Harbor Watershed Association, and Melanie Reding, education coordinator at the Cousteau Research Reserve.

This past year, Stockton went beyond the Mullica River-Great Bay system, where the initiative began, and focused on the Atlantic coastal bays behind the barrier islands from Little Egg Inlet, south to Great Egg Harbor Bay. The Stockton team used state-of-the-art sonar technology to create precise maps to point crabbers, equipped with low-cost sonar systems, to the exact locations where the crab pots lay, explained Evert. Using the maps and sonar, crabbers used grappling hooks to haul them from the bays. Marked traps in good condition are returned to the owners; unusable traps are recycled.

The density of lost traps can be as high as 250-300 traps per square kilometer. During the last two-year project, Stockton estimates that a value of $13,240 in crab pots was returned for reuse by collaborating crabbers. An additional $2,500 in reusable parts and recycled scrap metal was recaptured.

Data from this two-year project is not yet complied. Check out for a look at the maps and for updates. Stockton is planning to apply for a third round of funding to keep the project going.

Either way, the Unkerts and the other crabbers involved in the program will continue to use the sonar to retrieve their ghost pots, saving them time and money.

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