A new survey is shedding light on how many old traps and other marine debris is littering the waters of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
Released last week, the study by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) fisheries biologist Tom Matthews and other scientists found that 85,000 spiny lobster ghost traps which have lost their buoys, and more than 1 million pieces of traps and fishing gear junk is estimated to be present on the sea floor of the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary.
The new study was released as spiny lobster season came to a close Monday and fishermen had to bring in all of their traps.
The greatest density of trap debris was found in coral-dominated habitats throughout the Keys, despite trap fishermen's avoidance of coral reefs while fishing, according to the report.
Keys fishermen reached an agreement with federal fishery managers several years ago when the federal government listed elkhorn and staghorn coral on the endangered species list. The fishermen worked with fishery managers to detail areas the fishermen are to avoid to protect the coral.
In any given season, there are roughly 483,000 spiny lobster traps in waters off the Florida Keys. Matthews estimated that 18 percent, or roughly 87,000 traps, with nearly 1,000 miles of rope, are lost in the water each year..
Storms and hurricanes are mostly to blame. The wave and wind action during powerful storms can push traps hundreds of yards. In some cases, the junk is pushed into coral reefs and other fragile marine habitat.
"Marine debris continues to be a problem in the sanctuary, and while we spend a lot of money and staff time on cleanups, we may never be able to address over a million derelict traps that litter the sea floor, coral reefs and mangroves," Sanctuary Superintendent Sean Morton said Tuesday.
"In other surveys, scientists have found that debris has been encountered on the seabed at 85 percent of the surveyed sites. Marine debris is well known in its ability to kill fish, birds, lobster and sea turtles but nets, line and traps, when combined with wind and waves, can scrape and harm immobile organisms such as sponges and corals. It is a pervasive problem that needs to be addressed."
Bill Kelly, executive director of the Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association, contends the trap loss estimates are too high.
"If his numbers were correct, there would be a lot of fishermen out of business," Kelly said.
He estimated trap loss is more in the six percent range, with many of the traps being recovered during after-season programs that commercial fishermen participate in.
Trap fishermen pay a fee of $1 per trap each year with proceeds going to pay groups like the Organized Fishermen of Florida to remove traps left in the water after lobster season closes at the end of March.
Kelly also argued it is a fishermen's best financial interest to recover all of his or her traps at the end of the year, as they cost roughly $40 a piece to buy or make.
"The guys regularly move their traps, and they have sophisticated electronic equipment to track their equipment," Kelly said.
Ghost traps can also be bad for lobster populations as the crustaceans become stuck in the traps and die. It is estimated hundreds of thousands of lobsters die a year in old traps, said Matthews, who is finalizing a study on lobster mortality with more specific information on the number of deaths.
Once left in the water, the traps either break apart, or become overgrown within a year and a half.
"It (lobster mortality because of old traps) is a big cost to the fishery," Matthews said.