Thousands of fishing traps are lost or abandoned each year in United States waters, including the Florida Keys, but continue still to catch marine life such as spiny lobster.
These ghost, or derelict traps, result in the death of spiny lobsters and losses to habitat and fisheries. The losses also trickle down to watermen, according to a recently published National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study.
The study, which took place between 2007 and 2010, showed that each ghost trap in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary results in the deaths of 10 spiny lobsters a year. It did not give an exact number for the amount of such traps that currently reside on the Florida Keys sea floor and the possible financial impact on local fisheries.
The study stated that "once traps stop ghost fishing, they may remain intact for long periods of time before degrading."
"These intact derelict traps can move along the seabed and negatively impact sensitive habitats," the study stated. "Surveys of fishing traps and fishing-related gear in the Florida Keys determined that wind and severe weather events accumulated the highest density of fishing trap debris in the most sensitive habitats, corals."
The researchers are not trying to demonize trap fishing, but instead wanted to outline concerns about ghost traps and come up with possible solutions. The researcher suggested "collaborative effort is needed to design traps that allow species to readily escape when traps become derelict, thus rendering derelict traps 'nonfishing,'" the study states.
The trap designs should account for differences in species behavior.
"We think this is largely preventable," said NOAA scientist Ariana Sutton-Grier, who coauthored the study. "We want to work with fishermen on this."
Spiny lobster and stone crab trap fishing generate $600 million a year to the Florida Keys economy, Florida Keys Commercial Fishermen's Association Executive Director Bill Kelly said.
Florida lobster fishermen actively participate in a trap clean-up program that removes between 3,000 and 6,000 traps a year, Kelly said.
State and federal fishery managers have imposed an aggressive trap-reduction program starting in 1993 that has reduced the numbers by 100,000 traps since its inception, Kelly said.
Keys trap fishermen worked closely with federal fishery managers to set aside 60 large areas off the Florida Keys to trap fishing to protect staghorn and elkhorn coral, which were placed on the federal endangered species list in 2006, Kelly said.
The association has donated money for coral research, nursery and restoration work in the Florida Keys.
In the Keys, spiny lobster traps are made out of wood and severely degrade within a year, as opposed to plastic or metal traps used in other areas, Kelly added.
"We are the last trap fishery that still utilizes wooden traps."