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VIMS reaches out to crabbers for guidance on derelict pots

  • Partnership:
    Partnership:  VIMS graduate student Jim DelBene (left) and his professional mentor, J.C. Hudgins, look over the water along a dock on Gwynn's Island in the Chesapeake Bay.  Photo by A. Devlin, Virginia Sea Grant
  • Blue crabs:
    Blue crabs:  Chesapeake blue crabs bust out of a half-bushel basket after a day's catch off Gwynn's Island.  Photo by A. Devlin, Virginia Sea Grant
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Researchers at William & Mary's Virginia Institute of Marine Science are using a mail survey to ask local crabbers to share their opinions and experiences related to commercial hard crabbing and derelict, or “ghost,” crab pots. The results will identify crabber preferences for activities and incentives that could help reduce the number of derelict pots and their impacts in Virginia’s waters.

Studies show that crabbers may lose 12-20 percent of their pots each year to boat propellers, storms and other causes. These lost pots can have both ecological and economic impacts.

To gauge crabber opinions and preferences as regulatory agencies mull potential options for addressing the derelict-pot issue, VIMS graduate student Jim DelBene has created a survey that he will mail this winter to the roughly 1,100 hard pot crabbers licensed in Virginia.

VIMS graduate student Jim DelBene (R) and professional mentor J.C. Hudgins discuss derelict crab pots along a dock on Gwynn's Island. (Photo by Aileen Devlin, Virginia Sea Grant)DelBene is a master’s degree student in William & Mary’s School of Marine Science at VIMSadvised by assistant professor and fisheries economist Andrew Scheldand research associate professor and coastal ecologist Donna Bilkovic. His involvement in the project is partly funded through a Graduate Research Fellowship from Virginia Sea Grantand a W&M Green Fee award.

“The survey will ask watermen what they think about derelict pots, what activity — if any — they would prefer in order to address the issue, and what kinds of incentives they would want for participating in that activity,” says DelBene. “Successful mitigation strategies require buy-in from the crabbers,” he adds, “so it’s essential to hear from them. The large number of licensed hard crabbers located throughout coastal Virginia make it difficult to hear from all perspectives.”

Local waterman J.C. Hudgins (C) talks with VIMS graduate student Jim DelBene (L) during a focus group with local watermen. (Photo by A. Devlin, VASG)DelBene hopes that his survey can provide commercial hard crabbers with a way to share their thoughts with the public, scientists, resource managers and policymakers. He has already teamed up with two focus groups of four to five watermen — one group in Hampton Roads and one on Virginia’s Eastern Shore — and met with state resource managers at the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) to tailor the survey’s questions and wording for its intended audience.

Assisting him in reaching out to local watermen is J.C. Hudgins, president of the Virginia Waterman’s Association and a member of the VMRC Crab Management and Advisory Committee.

“I think it’s gone well,” says Hudgins in regards to his collaboration with DelBene. “I’m mentoring him and learning some new things throughout this process; I think he chose me because I’m pretty connected with a lot of watermen and sit on different state advisory committees.”

Hudgins says the survey will provide an important sounding board for local watermen, many of whom downplay the magnitude of the derelict-pot issue. They cite among other considerations the sharp drop in the number of crabbers in Virginia during the past few decades — from just short of 2,000 in 1999 to just over 1,000 today — with an attendant drop in the number of crab pots deployed and potentially lost.

“As president of the Waterman’s Association,” says Hudgins, “I feel the watermen need to be able to voice their opinions as to how they feel about derelict pots, for instance I think the percentage of pots lost is lower than the 12-20 percent found in studies. Jim’s survey provides a great opportunity for watermen to share their voices, and really find out what watermen want.”

Recognizing that issues with derelict crab pots are not restricted to Virginia, DelBene’s first task in drafting the survey was to review the range of different regulations and activities used in other states with commercial blue crab fisheries.

“I gathered information on what each state is doing from Connecticut all the way down through Texas,” says DelBene, “and used that information to inform what kinds of activities are possible.”

Those activities run the gamut — from providing on-land recycling facilities for old pots to educating recreational boaters on how to avoid severing the line that ties a submerged pot to its visible surface buoy. Other possible activities include a targeted derelict pot removal program — like the one managed in Virginia by VIMS and VMRC from 2008 to 2012 — or a requirement to put an identification tag on each pot (not just on the pot’s buoy as is now the case).

A crab boat pulls into the dock along Gwynn's Island. (Photo by A. Devlin/VASG)In the survey, DelBene will use a method called “discrete choice experiments” to identify the watermen’s preferences and evaluate tradeoffs among different options. The surveys will present hypothetical options that pair activities — like educating recreational boaters or removing derelict pots — with incentives such as an increase in the pot limit or an extension of the crabbing season, along with potential cash payments. The survey will also gather data on crabbing activity, such as the number of pots fished and lost, and personal characteristics, including commercial crabbing experience and motivations.

Once completed, DelBene will share the survey results with watermen, the public, the VMRC and other audiences. Survey responses will be presented in aggregate to maintain data confidentiality and protect participant privacy.

Licensed hard pot crabbers in Virginia should expect to see mailings related to the Derelict Blue Crab Pot Survey in the near future. All mailings will clearly indicate that they were sent by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, and survey participants will be entered in a drawing to win one of four $100 grocery gift cards.

In addition to informing any potential derelict-pot activities in Virginia, DelBene says the survey results will also provide insights to help address derelict gear in other regions and fisheries.

“Our overall objective is to generate new information to identify stakeholder preferences for activities and incentives in the Chesapeake Bay,” he says, “with hopes that a similar framework could be applied to other fisheries impacted by derelict gear.”