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Silent Killers

Volunteers help remove thousands of abandoned crab traps from Texas bays.

By Larry Bozka

Balanced atop the forward deck of his airboat, his cap turned backward to the wind, Mark Hall looks like an ancient mariner about to launch a harpoon.

In his right hand he holds a long steel probe with a U-shaped curve at the end. Just off the bow of the drifting boat rests a long-abandoned crab trap.

Hall leans forward, shoves the hook deep inside the chicken wire mesh of the half-submerged trap and pulls. As he lifts it into the boat, a smelly blend of olive-green algae and chocolate-colored mud oozes onto the galvanized deck.

The car wash will do some serious business this evening.

Tens of thousands of crab traps lie derelict and abandoned in Texas bay systems. This one, in all likelihood, was carried here by a storm. Were it not for Hall’s airboat, we’d have never been able to access it. The gumbo bottom of this isolated flat is about as firm as half-melted butter.

The thumb-size stone crab that crawls out of the enclosure is a pitiful little thing. Hall picks it up gently. He’s rewarded with a hard pinch on the finger.

“Good thing they handed out gloves at the ramp,” he says with a grin.

The determined crustacean, like the trap he just exited, is not prone to releasing prisoners. Abandoned crab traps are perpetual killers. A crab enters a trap, and once it has eaten the food that attracted it, eventually dies. It, in turn, attracts yet another creature, which perpetuates an endless cycle of death.

Most of the crabs captured in bay traps are blue crabs. A much smaller percentage, including our lively little visitor, which Hall finally pries free and releases into Green’s Lake, near West Galveston Bay, are stone crabs. All are susceptible to year-round capture, with the single exception of the annual 10-day period, beginning the third Friday of February, when the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department orders commercial crabbers to pick up all of their gear so that abandoned traps can be removed from the water.

During this year’s effort, from Sabine Lake to the Lower Laguna Madre, 234 volunteers working from 78 different vessels removed a grand total of 2,509 crab traps. In 2004, 3,571 traps were taken out. In 2003, 3,838 were removed, and in 2002, when the program first began, a whopping 8,070 crab traps were extracted from coastal bays, flats and estuaries.

Art Morris, a TPWD fishery outreach specialist based in Corpus Christi, spearheads the annual Crab Trap Removal Program.

“The number of crab traps removed is progressively going down,” Morris says. “That’s good news. It means, in essence, that the program is working. We always get some great volunteers, folks who don’t mind working hard, spending their own money and getting their boats really dirty.”

Sponsors provide everything from food and drinks for workers to rubber gloves and specially made retrieval hooks like the one used by Hall.

This year, the state of Louisiana joined the program. Research conducted in the Bayou State indicates that a single derelict trap annually catches and kills approximately 26 blue crabs. Such traps can remain in the water, undetected but deadly, for 10 years or more.

“We survey the contents and condition of the traps,” Morris says. “We also record what’s in them … along with blue and stone crabs, some 30 different species. Sixty-two percent of the catch is blue crabs; stone crabs come in number two with 19 percent; then sheepshead follow at 7 percent. The remaining 12 percent includes, among other species, various species of hermit crabs, red drum, spotted seatrout, flounder, black drum, gray snapper, Atlantic croaker and, rarely, diamondback terrapins.”

More than half (57 percent) of the traps removed are still in fishable condition after pickup. Most, however, go to the nearest landfill, although some are melted down and recycled by participating sponsors.

Since the program’s inception, 1,593 volunteers have joined TPWD staffers to remove a total of 18,008 derelict crab traps from Texas coastal waters.

At 26 blue crabs per trap each year, that’s approximately 468,208 blue crabs still swimming in Texas saltwater that would otherwise be dead.

For that, a tank of gas and a half-hour stint at the car wash seem a mighty small price to pay.

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