Students tackle ‘ghost-pot’ problem

Posted 7/7/22

Many people who’ve lived or visited the Olympic Peninsula and surrounding regions know the importance of the Dungeness crab as a foundational part of local cuisine and the specie’s role …

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Students tackle ‘ghost-pot’ problem


Many people who’ve lived or visited the Olympic Peninsula and surrounding regions know the importance of the Dungeness crab as a foundational part of local cuisine and the specie’s role as a major export of the local fish trade.

After all, the crab species was named after the unincorporated community of Dungeness north of Sequim.

While the local crustacean is a valuable and vital part of the Peninsula’s economy, the effects of “ghost pots” — derelict crab traps on the ocean floor — have left a lasting effect on the local marine life on the sea floor.

The crab-catching cage itself isn’t necessarily the problem here, but rather the fact that many of the pots are lost or forgotten by fishermen over time. Crab traps are typically built with a failsafe latch that frees the creatures trapped within after a period of time, but in many cases, the latch doesn’t work.

This causes the crabs within to die, leaving a carcass that attracts other crabs and creatures to enter the pot and fall to the same fate.

While the ghost pot problem primarily impacts crabs, the cage can lead to dozens or more unnecessary deaths for a variety of critters, also leading to lower yields for fishers in the same area.

Sensing a problem and searching for a solution, members of the Sea Dragons — a local underwater robotics team consisting of four college students in the area — partnered with the Jefferson County Marine Resources Committee to find a fix to the derelict crab pots looming within the depths of the Salish Sea.

Consisting of sophomore environmental science majors Ella Ashford and Riley Forth of Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, sophomore engineer Logan Flanagan of Western Washington University, and Teach Northwest High School graduate Nathaniel Ashford, the four-part team found a way to help with the ghost pot problem by returning to their robotics roots.

Flanagan, Ella Ashford, and Nathaniel Ashford are longtime members and alumni of the Port Townsend STEM Club, where they got acquainted with robotics from an early age.

Their first taste of the world of robotics came from a maker’s fair they attended as children, where the trio was fascinated by a simple aquatic automation at the event.

“It was a PVC robot in a bucket and we couldn’t get enough of it,” Ella Ashford said, laughing. “All of our imaginations were really piqued.”

A decade later, the robotics squad is continuing their passion, albeit with bigger toys and much more strenuous challenges.

“Logan, Nathaniel, and I have been on robotics teams together for the last 10 years,” Ella Ashford said. “We’ve know each-other since we were like 9 and working with Lego robots … it felt so natural to keep that same team, because we’d spent years building the camaraderie and support systems and communication that it just flowed really naturally.”

With Forth as a recent addition to the team, the Sea Dragons have been aiding the local marine ecosystem by using an ROV (remotely operated vehicle) used in previous competitions and equipped with up-cycled bike batteries from The Broken Spoke in Port Townsend to locate and recover ghost pots from the local seafloor.

“We found that local fishermen are just as invested in this project as we are. They want to see these crab pots removed, they want to assist in better [crab pot] safety so that they can’t be lost as often,” Nathaniel Ashford added.

“Realistically, our goal is to work with the fishing community, because for the fishing community this has many negative effects on them, as well. “They rely off this as a source of income and food … our main objective is to keep the environment clean,” he added.

For the Sea Dragons, environmental stewardship and preservation is the primary motivation for the work that they do.

“I think so many people don’t recognize how polluted our oceans are starting to become. More than just crab pots, we were running into countless marine debris down there,” Ella Ashford said. “It’s startling, we can’t go down in a dive without finding something that a human has left behind.”

According to the Northwest Straits Foundation, 12,000 crab pots are lost in the Puget Sound, killing an estimated 180,000 Dungeness crabs each year.

“That’s why this project is so unique in some ways; we’re specifically looking at community-driven solutions to this problem,” Ella Ashford explained. “Community members, people who care most about the community that they’re in, can enact change in small or big ways, so that’s what inspires me most about this project.”

The student-research team has received help from Jefferson County as well as a boatload of permitting assistance from the county’s Marine Resources Committee (MRC).

“District 2 Representative Jeff Taylor raised the issue of derelict crab pots to the MRC and saw the opportunity to work with the Sea Dragons,” said Monica Montgomery, the Washington State University Jefferson County Extension Water Programs Coordinator. “Many were skeptical that an underwater ROV could successfully locate — let alone remove — derelict crab pots in our surrounding waters, but overcoming challenge after challenge, these students proved the concept by doing just that.”

Using her environmental science background, Ella Ashford acknowledged that while using automated devices like ROVs can be a massive benefit to countering climate change, the problem is too broad and too persistent to only pursue through that strategy alone.

“For me, an ROV has always been a tool, not necessarily the whole solution,” Ashford said. “For me, its too big of a problem, especially when it keeps increasing, so we can’t solely rely on technology to bring us to a solution. It has to do with people too.”

To learn more about the Port Townsend STEM Club and Sea Dragons  and donate to help their efforts, visit