By Brenda Flanagan
There goes a grappling hook into Barnegat Bay. We’re aboard the Sirenia, where Capt. Chuck Tharp checks his sidescan sonar, searching for old crab pots littering the sea floor. He follows a map prepared by Stockton University.
“I was amazed. I was really surprised. I’m on the bay almost every day and I didn’t realize how much is on the bottom,” Tharp said. “A lot of junk, and they’ve been there for a while, it looks like.”
“We have a map of where the crab pots are supposed to be, but that doesn’t mean they’re there, with all these storms that’ve come about. They cause such high water, high energy in the water it kind of shifts the crab pots,” said John Wnek of the Marine Academy of Technology and Environmental Sciences.
When Wnek tries to snag the crab pot, the hook comes up empty. Wnek works with a conservation group that’s on a mission — to locate, map and retrieve more than 1,000 derelict, abandoned and lost crab pots from Barnegat Bay.
“Most of them are recreational traps we find, some of them do have commercial tags in them. There’s pots in all stages of decay, all kinds of stuff. It’s going to be a big job,” said Capt. Robert J. Cericola.
That’s because fishermen lose a lot of crab pots.
“The Local fishermen estimate 10 percent of pots are lost annually and that accounts for $1,000 to $2,000 for pots per season, if fishermen are setting out 200 to 400 pots apiece,” said Stephanie Egger, project lead for the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of New Jersey.
A public-private partnership will try to collect 26,000 pounds of old pots, funded by a $100,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which says marine debris threatens navigation and harms wildlife.
“Crab pots are a specific type of marine debris that can continue to trap and kill various marine species, including harvestable crabs. This phenomenon is also known as ghost fishing, and it results in lost catch opportunities and financial losses for fishermen,” said David Westerholm, director of NOAA.
The old pots will be dumped into special bins and then recycled and incinerated by an energy company called Covanta in Rahway that produces electricity. The project’s called Fishing for Energy. Covanta’s already at work in 10 other states, processing marine debris.
“We just passed our 3 million pound mark. We’re pretty excited about that. That would equate to producing enough power for 2,200 homes for a month,” said Meg Morris, vice president of materials management and community affairs for Covanta.
It’ll take a couple of years to collect all the derelict crab pots in Barnegat Bay. In the meantime, environmental advocates say they want to work up a reporting system so that commercial and recreational fishermen can let them know when they’ve lost a crab pot.