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Ghost busters

Abandoned crab traps, known as ghost traps, litter area waters. Tampa Bay Watch is cleaning up the mess.

By TERRY TOMALIN, Times Outdoors Editor
Published January 14, 2005

Peter Clark found out the hard way how dangerous an abandoned crab trap can be.

"We were running up the main channel of the Alafia River when it got tangled in our prop," the executive director of Tampa Bay Watch said. "We would have been stranded there for I don't know how long if another boat hadn't come along."

On an extremely low tide Monday, Clark and a group of volunteers from the Florida Airboat Association scoured the flats of eastern Tampa Bay for derelict crab traps.

"It is a big problem all over the bay," Clark said. "These "ghost traps' can go on catching and killing crabs, fish and terrapin turtles for years to come."

Tampa Bay Watch, along with several local, state and federal agencies, started the program last year.

"Nobody knows just how many derelict traps there are in Tampa Bay," Clark said. "But I would bet it is safe to say that the number is in the thousands."

It is a third-degree felony to remove or tamper with a blue or stone crab trap. But Clark and his "Ghost Busters" team, as the crab trap removal volunteers are called, have a permit from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to remove traps that meet these criteria:

- Any trap found in the water during the closed season for the following species - blue crab (Sept. 20 through Oct. 4), stone crab (May 16 through Oct. 14) and crawfish (April 1 through Aug. 5).

- During the open season, any trap that lacks three of the following (buoy, line, FWC tag or identification) or trap that lacks one of its six sides.

Since May, Bay Watch volunteers have removed a total of 225 traps on three trips. "We targeted the east side of the bay because that seems to be where the problem is the greatest," Clark said.

Tampa Fishing guide Dave Markett helped pull several dozen traps in a two-day period. "We found a lot of things that were still alive in those traps," Markett said. "I'm real happy with what we accomplished."

Blue crab traps tend to be in shallow water and are more hazardous to navigation than a deep stone crab trap.

"These blue crab traps fall apart, and all that let is the metal sticking up out of the bottom like spikes," Clark said. "Step on one and you are in a lot of trouble."

Clark warned that boaters and anglers should not attempt to remove abandoned crag traps. They should mark down the location and report the trap to Tampa Bay Watch at (727) 867-8166.

The removal program is one of several efforts to help restore Tampa Bay.

Bay Watch's oyster reef and sea-wall oyster-dome programs promote natural oyster growth along the shorelines and residential canals. Oysters are a natural filtration system and help improve the water quality of Tampa Bay.

The organizations Salt March Planting program uses area high schools to raise and plant grasses that help stabilize shorelines so other species, such as mangroves, can grow. Mangroves provide a critical nursery area to many commercial and recreational fish.

Bay Watch is working with state researchers to rebuild the bay's scallop fishery. Scallops once supported a thriving commercial industry in local waters, but the shellfish disappeared in the 1960s. Transplanting efforts have helped, and the organization's Great Bay Scallop Search is one of its most popular events.

Over the years Bay Watch also has sponsored dozens of fishing line cleanups. If left in the environment, discarded line can entangle and kill birds and other wildlife.

Storm-water runoff is the top source of pollution in Tampa Bay. Bay Watch's storm drain marking program has raised public awareness of this problem, making for a cleaner bay.

For more information on the organization and its programs, go to www.tampabaywatch.org

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