Something’s haunting Biscayne Bay: ghost traps

Beneath the glittering surface of Biscayne Bay, a menace lurks, wiping out fragile seagrass habitat, catching and killing as brutally, efficiently and indiscriminately as any monster from the deep: ghost traps.

What goes inside the abandoned or lost traps stays inside — crabs left to cannibalize each other, baby lobster and fish too disoriented to escape. Heavy-grade plastic crab traps can even outlive their owners.

“Just because someone’s not actually fishing a trap, it doesn’t mean the trap isn’t fishing,” said John Ricisak, a Miami-Dade County environmental resources project supervisor who heads county removal efforts.

Ghost traps are so ubiquitous that it’s hard to know how many exist. A 2013 study by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that more than 1.1 million ghost and derelict traps litter the Florida Keys. One day last week, Ricisak and county biologist Felix Alvarez yanked three dozen crab traps from the bottom of Biscayne National Park in less than three hours, a fraction of their record of 102 in a single day.

“That’s like the simplest drop in the biggest bucket,” he said.

Trapping, legal and otherwise, in Florida’s gin-clear waters goes way back. Joe Weiss built his Joe’s Stone Crab empire in South Beach when in the 1920s a Harvard ichthyologist introduced him to the stone crabs then teeming in the bay. The state’s spiny lobsters supply the entire nation, with 90 percent coming from the Keys. While intense fishing pressure from divers and commercial trappers has led to tighter seasons and rules on lobster and crabs, what to do about the square and rectangle traps that can weigh up to 40 pounds persists.

“It’s awful,” said Amanda Bourque, an ecologist with Biscayne National Park’s Habitat Restoration Program. “We’re consistently finding this debris, wherever we go.”

The problem in the Keys is so prolific that commercial fishermen agreed to avoid reefs with fragile coral. Still, the 2013 study found that nearly a half million traps are dropped in the region yearly. More than 85,000 of those, trailing nearly 1,000 miles of rope, are lost. And that can mean ecological damage beyond the death of the lobsters, crabs and fish trapped inside.

Lobster traps are constructed of degradable wood but weighted with cement and often tied to a buoy with nylon rope. Stone-crab traps are typically made of heavy-grade plastic that can last decades. Over time, they can shift around, crashing into coral and razing seagrass beds. Unruly ropes tangle around reefs, becoming embedded over time.

“It just twirls around and around and around, so it will never come out by itself,” Bourque said. “And the rope is usually synthetic, so it’s never going to degrade.”

The introduction of GPS also allowed any weekend warrior to become a successful trapper.

“GPS is the best thing and the worst thing that has ever happened,” Ricisak said.

But so far, trap-removal efforts are largely voluntary or underfunded. In 2004, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission started allowing government agencies and non-government groups to remove derelict and ghost traps with a permit. To remove one without the permit is a felony.

Ricisak, who normally oversees compliance on seawall construction or mangrove removals for the county, applied and started removing traps in 2005 after stumbling across dozens of derelict traps at low tide near the Deering Estate.

“I didn’t know much about it, but I knew those traps shouldn’t be there and there should be a way to remove them,” he said.

During his first organized event, he removed 44 in the area. He also helped clean up traps near the old Card Sound Road squatters camp, where blue crab sales were brisk. The haul in a day was 102. But his efforts now are largely opportunistic: when he can find time and get Alvarez to be his wingman.

On their outing last week, Alvarez piloted the boat, acting as spotter, while Ricisak hauled up the traps, scouring the bay like road workers cleaning debris off the highway. Finding traps during the off-season is easy since no trap should be in the water. A lobster sanctuary in the bay inside park boundaries also means no lobster traps are allowed. To combat blue-crab traps, which are fishable year-round, the state established a rotating 10-day closure in 2009 to clean up traps.

The pair fished out a mix of commercial and recreational traps — a distinction lost on the critters left to perish inside. Lobster were as likely to wander into the crab traps as stone crab. They found 38 lobster and 36 stone crabs. Eight were dead, with the stone crabs displaying a more gruesome survival skill: many cannibalized each other.

The pair also found more than 150 yards of half-inch nylon rope snaking along the bay bottom, submerged for so long that a colony of sponges, corals and other sea life had sprung from it.

By morning’s end, they had collected about 1,500 pounds of debris. While Ricisak focuses on what he characterizes as the easy-to-spot low-hanging fruit, for the past decade the park has been hiring contractors to clean harder-to-find debris on reefs, Bourque said. But the work is expensive and time-consuming: a boat and clean-up crew with four divers costs about $7,000 a day. So far, less than an acre has been cleaned. A study is under way to determine how quickly debris may pile back up.

And while they relish the feast, recreational stone crabbers say trapping can wind up being a big headache. Aldis Lopez owned one of the traps Ricisak recovered last week. Lopez, an attorney, said she, her son and brother put out traps a couple of years ago for fun.

“We gave up after five trips,” she said.

Thieves repeatedly stole claws from trapped crabs or entire traps, she said.

“After this year, we just decided we’re not going to do it anymore because those traps go missing,” she said. “Those traps are lot of work. You go out there and people steal your claws, and that’s the best-case scenario.”

Lopez’s nieces even drew pictures on trap buoys, pleading with thieves to leave them alone, she said.

“I wish there was some way for Florida wildlife or someone to enforce [the laws] and put stricter penalties” in place, said Joseph Roig, Lopez’s brother. “It’s amazing that people just steal.”

In fact, addressing the problem before traps hit the water would be a cheaper and easier solution, Bourque said.

“More effort should be spent on enforcing the regulations out there and holding the owners accountable,” she said. “That would be where the effort is better spent, rather than sending a bunch of public servants around cleaning up after these guys.”

Follow Jenny Staletovich on Twitter @jenstaletovich