'Ghost gear' kills thousands of fish, marine animals each year

Tampa Bay has some of the prettiest waterways in the world, but lurking just below the surface is an ugly phenomenon that kills and maims thousands of fish and marine animals each year. It’s known as "ghost gear," which is lost or abandoned crab and lobster traps or fishing gear that continues to weak havoc on the environment. 

The problem isn’t unique to Tampa Bay. Ghost gear is found in waterways all over the globe and this week conservationists are hoping to shine a little light on the issue and inspire people to help clean up their local waterways. 

It’s an issue St. Petersburg native Captain Neill Holland set his sights on four years ago when he founded Ocean Aid 360 and hosted the first Ghost Gear Rodeo to help clean up Tampa Bay waterways. 

"This problem is really large," Holland said. "A significant portion of fishing equipment and fishing gear every season goes missing on account of storms that pass by or boats that run across equipment and cut the buoy off."

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In their first year, Holland said the tournaments netted more than 30,000 pounds of crab traps and other abandoned fishing gear. Since then, he’s organized dozens of Ghost Gear Rodeos around Florida thanks to a partnership with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and NOAA. 

The cleanup events now take place year-round and have grown increasingly more popular and more potent. At a recent Ghost Gear Rodeo in Key West, participants hauled in more than 35,000 pounds of derelict traps, fishing gear and debris. 

"Just a single trap that came to the surface had 26 adult spiny lobsters jammed inside," said Holland. "When you consider that on that same day 822 others just like it were also brought to the surface with different amounts of sea marine life inside. Literally, thousands of specimens of commercially viable spiny lobsters and stone crabs that were left for dead. We had a nice opportunity to release them and bring these traps ashore so that they're out of the watershed and can can't contribute to ghost fishing anymore."

The dramatic rescue of a baby dolphin at Clearwater Beach in July highlighted the problem of ghost gear for many. The dolphin, which is now recovering at Sea World in Orlando, became ensnared in a derelict crab trap.  

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Holland said it’s an important reminder of how harmful ghost gear is. 

Since 2018 Ocean Aid 360’s Ghost Gear Rodeos have pulled more than 130,000 pounds of traps and other marine debris from Florida waterways. Their next event will be later this month on the Indian River in Titusville. A Tampa Bay Ghost Gear Rodeo is planned for October. 

To learn more about how you can get involved in ghost gear clean-ups, visit https://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/trap-debris/ and https://www.oceanaid360.org/