ASTORIA - A lost-and-found program for derelict crab pots unloaded its first batch of recovered gear at the Port of Astoria last week.
The 40 rusty old crab pots were found on the ocean floor and docked at Astoria's Pier 2. They are slimy, barnacle-covered cages, circular and about two feet in diameter, that were left behind by crab fishermen who presumably couldn't find them because their buoys were torn off at sea.
A coordinated effort by local and state, public and private interests to collect these pots was paid for by a $50,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Marine Debris Cleanup program. It is one of NOAA's 10 crab pot recovery programs nationwide and the only one here. A similar program is underway in Puget Sound.
To find the pots, Scott Smotherman, the skipper of the Cape St. James, and crew member Ed Grotting spent two days in the local crabbing grounds, dragging chains with hooks along the ocean floor and releasing about 20 live crab still living in the pots as they pulled them up. They brought two loads into port, one Oct. 1 and one Oct. 3.
The Oregon Fishermen's Cable Committee, Oregon Dungeness Crab Commission and Oregon State University Sea Grant applied to the NOAA Community-Based Restoration Program for funds and gathered fishermen, marine wildlife and enforcement agencies and students to participate in the recovery process. Identification tags on the pots will allow officials to return them to their owners, many of whom probably live in Pacific and Clatsop counties.
On Oct. 3, Astoria High School teacher Lee Cain brought a group of 12 students studying marine fishing technology to pick through the contents of the pots and bring some items back to their lab for further study.
"We're going to go through and identify the things we found in the pots. It gives these guys a chance to see something you don't normally see by exploring on the beach," said Cain.
In addition to the drooping sea anemone clinging to the bars, students found old ropes, hooks from trawl fishing gear and netting with live sole fish and squid wrapped inside. One of the pots had gotten caught in the propeller of a boat, which left it bent and crumpled.
"These are the future fishermen of Astoria. Their understanding of lost gear is important," said NOAA marine habitat specialist Megan Callahan Grant, who was at the docks when the pots were unloaded Tuesday. "They found live fish in the sardine net caught inside the crab pot. These things have a huge impact on the marine environment and on the fishery."
Some rough estimates say 10 percent of the 200,000 crab pots that go out with fishermen each year are left behind for one reason or another. Starting this year, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission has reduced the total number of crab pot permits to 150,000 in part to reduce the total impact of derelict pots.
Scott McMullen, chairman of the OFCC and a salmon trawler, said the factors that cause a pot to be lost are beyond fishermen's control. Very often, sea kelp wrapped around the pot's buoy will rip it from the line and make it hard to relocate when the boat returns to collect its catch. The OFCC got involved in collecting pots to protect cable lines along the ocean floor from being damaged when the pots get hooked on them.
Losing a pot means losing an expensive investment, said McMullen.
"Each pot is worth about $120, plus you have the lost production, which is worth more than the pot," he said. "Some boats make separate trips trying to find them, and that is also expensive."
McMullen said removing the pots from the sea floor helps everyone from the crab themselves to cable companies.
Crab pots are required to have an escape mechanism built in to spare the crabs caught in lost pots. A patch of cotton webbing built into the wires on the pot will biodegrade within months of being dropped in the ocean.
"Unfortunately, if they get turned upside down or if they get twisted or bent, they can still cause some problems for the crab inside," said Jill Smith of the ODFW marine division in Astoria.
But gear conflicts and the general safety risk of having large debris in the ocean are also concerns.
"We get lots of complaints," said Smith. "Sardine fishermen have to dodge them, and salmon trollers' gear gets caught on them. Sometimes it's not just one pot, but sometimes they all roll together, three or four or five of them, and if you get caught on something like that and you can't get your gear up, you have to cut your line, which becomes even more of a cost to the fishermen."
Smith said the sardine net found in one of the derelict pots docked in Astoria left a big hole in the fisherman's net when it was cut loose.
"You can lose a couple tons of sardines pretty quickly through that hole," she said.
Several agencies involved in the crab fishery are also looking for fishermen and trollers to help by reporting the latitude and longitude information of lost buoys and found crab pots.