An estimated 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in the Salish Sea, killing nearly 180,000 harvestable crabs alone, in addition to other marine life caught in the wrong place at the wrong time...
The crystalline waters of the Puget Sound hide a dark secret.
The crabbing industry, well-established on the Olympic Peninsula, has contributed its fair share of marine pollution. An estimated 12,000 crab pots are lost each year in the Salish Sea, killing nearly 180,000 harvestable crabs alone, in addition to other marine life caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Rogue pots equal negative economic impacts on coastal communities and the decline of marine biodiversity, as a derelict crab pot without proper escape cord can attract and kill crabs for years after the pot has been lost.
Fighting at the front lines against this plight is a student-run underwater robotics team who call themselves the Sea Dragons. They combine a passion for environmental science with their knowledge of technology and seamanship to recover derelict pots using custom-designed remotely operated vehicles, or ROVs.
The Sea Dragons — Logan Flanagan, Oscar Hoekman, Eve Quezada, Riley Forth, Ella Ashford, and her brothers Nathaniel and Everest — have partnered with the Jefferson County Marine Resource Committee to accomplish this mammoth task. The committee handles funding and permits; the team handles the recovery efforts.
“The most exciting, rewarding, and sobering moment for the team was when we retrieved a trap absolutely teeming with crabs,” Flanagan recalled. “Seeing how much damage one derelict crab pot could cause left a lasting impression.”
Crab pots are supposed to open automatically as a failsafe: If a pot’s marker buoy is lost, the crabs inside can escape. However, the mechanism often fails. On top of that, the traps are often laid incorrectly. Escape cord, or a similar biodegradable fiber, is required to secure the pots. It must be able to rot away and allow crab and other wildlife to escape freely if the pot is lost.
“But we’ve seen all sorts of illegal ways they’ve been set—zip ties, wire, you name it,” said Jeff Taylor, committee member and advisor to the team.
This summer, the Sea Dragons focused on Port Townsend Bay, a common crabbing and marine recreation use area, as their survey site.
Flanagan, annual project lead, team engineer, and boat pilot, explained the search and recovery process. “As the sonar is towed behind the research vessel, it emits pulses of sound that bounce back to a receiver. After processing this data through display software, the features below the sonar are mapped. The sonar allows each crab pot to receive a geolocation based on their latitude and longitude,” he said.
A challenge the team faced this season was distinguishing crab pots from other marine debris of similar size. Unfortunately, this was not something they could plan for. Of the twenty-six dives completed by the team, nearly half consisted of debris discoveries — no crab pots.
“Because of this, we had to double and triple check the data points on our list, and compare them visually to verified crab pots,” said Nathaniel Ashford, the team’s ROV pilot.
Despite this, 13 derelict crab pots were recovered this season.
“I was impressed with how quickly they adjusted and were able to solve problems,” said Taylor.
The Sea Dragons have received support and recognition from not only from the Jeffco. Marine Resource Committee, but the Northwest Straits Foundation, the Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, who awarded the team the Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Accessibility (DEIA) Ocean Exploration Education Grant to engage more students on the Olympic Peninsula in local derelict crab pot recovery efforts.
Ultimately, the Sea Dragons hope to inspire the rest of the community to get involved.
“With this project, we’re hoping to make marine cleanup more accessible,” Flanagan said.