The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has recommended William & Mary’s Virginia Institute of Marine Science as home base for a new national program focused on protecting U.S. coastal waters from derelict fishing gear.

The $8 million provided by NOAA to implement the four-year program is the largest single grant award in VIMS’ 83-year history. Many of these dollars will be passed on to program partners through an annual grant competition. Formally known as the Nationwide Fishing TRAP Program — “TRAP” for Trap Removal, Assessment & Prevention — the effort includes funding for commercial and tribal fishers to remove derelict pots from Virginia’s waters.

William & Mary’s strategic plan, Vision 2026, positions the university to address global challenges in areas including water and data.

A crab pot
A derelict crab trap holds several blue crabs, which will be unable to contribute to either the future crab population or a watermen’s bottom line. (Photo by K. Havens/VIMS)

“The TRAP program is a great example of critical thinking with data. Combining quantitative expertise with human understanding in this way is required to design innovative solutions for the complex challenges facing society today and, in the future,” said Provost Peggy Agouris.

Derek Aday, VIMS dean & director, agrees.

“Water is one of the world’s most threatened and valuable resources,” he said. “The TRAP program represents the kind of innovative approaches we need to solve global issues related to conserving our marine resources and increasing the resilience of coastal communities.”

Derelict gear refers to fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned, or otherwise discarded in the water, commonly due to storms and boat traffic. It can harm ecosystems and economies by trapping and killing targeted and bycatch species, damaging marine habitats and competing with actively fished gear.

The TRAP Program will fund removal of the pots and traps used to harvest crabs and lobsters and establish a Derelict Trap Policy Innovation Lab to synthesize the collected data to inform prevention and mitigation policies at the state and federal levels.

The brainchild of Kirk Havens, Donna Bilkovic and Andrew Scheld, the TRAP program builds on VIMS’ success in leading a multi-year partnership with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission and Virginian watermen to remove more than 34,000 derelict or “ghost” crab pots from the Chesapeake Bay. Scientists in this Virginia Marine Debris Removal Program also pioneered methods to assess the economic and ecologic impacts of the derelict pots and the benefits of their removal.

A 2016 study estimated that pot removals during the initial program increased bay-wide harvests by 38 million pounds, putting an extra $33.5 million into the pockets of bay crabbers. The same analysis revealed that removing just 10% of derelict crab pots and lobster traps on a global basis could increase landings by 293,929 metric tons, at a yearly value of $831 million.

“By coordinating the removal of derelict traps nationwide, we can leverage our experience and expertise to benefit coastal ecosystems and economies from Maine to Alaska,” said Havens, director of the Center for Coastal Resources Management (CCRM) at VIMS.

Waterman Clay Justis, who works pots along Virginia’s Eastern Shore, has seen these benefits first-hand. “When I was part of the removal program,” he said, “I pulled up lost pots that contained blue crabs and other animals. Removing lost pots helps clean the bay and prevents those pots from continuing to capture and kill marine life. I haven’t pulled any pots out of Pocomoke Sound since before COVID. I bet it’s loaded now.”

Program operation and benefits

The TRAP program will initially focus on the gear used to catch crabs (blue, Dungeness and stone) and lobsters (American and spiny). According to Scheld, a fisheries economist at VIMS, these trap and pot fisheries bring in more than $1 billion per year, almost 20% of the total annual landings value of all U.S. fisheries. As the TRAP program develops, it may expand to additional species captured using these two gear types.

Circular traps like these are used to harvest Dungeness crabs from the waters of Alaska and other U.S. West Coast states. (Photo courtesy of Sitka Sound Science Center)

“There have been many excellent efforts to deal with derelict fishing gear in U.S. waters, but to address the issue most effectively, it’s critical that these efforts are coordinated and standardized at a national scale,” said Bilkovic, CCRM assistant director. “That will allow us to determine where the gear is coming from and where it’s ending up, to accurately assess its ecological and economic impacts and to recognize high-use conflict areas. This is information that can ultimately help us develop effective prevention measures.”

Havens said that they will launch a national competition to fund sub-awardees who present effective proposals for removing derelict fishing traps in their own region or state. The competition will be offered annually in years two through four of the TRAP program. Program administrators anticipate awarding six-15 sub-grants per year, with total funding on the order of $1.5 million annually.

To be successful, proposals will need to include plans for collecting trap-removal data in a standardized format so they can be compiled and analyzed to better understand the scale of the issue and to inform state and federal responses. TRAP scientists and their communication partners, which include media firm Green Fin Studio and Kenah Consulting, will develop a website to share these data with policymakers and the public. This online information hub will provide users with details on trap removals and program participation. The site will also house a data and mapping dashboard similar to what VIMS currently provides for coastal shorelines and the earlier Virginia Marine Debris Removal Program.

“Kenah builds long-term relationships with Tribes through respect, discretion and honesty,” said Ashley Spivey, executive director of Kenah and a Pamunkey Indian tribal member. “Our team looks forward to facilitating engagement with indigenous communities across the United States that may have an interest in the removal of derelict traps from U.S. and tribal waters.”

The NOAA funding opportunity was created by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine, who strongly supported the IIJA and its Marine Debris Program provisions and was Virginia’s governor during the initiation of VIMS’ derelict crab-pot removal program in 2008, said, “I’m proud to have worked with VIMS to secure this funding to help keep Virginia’s waterways clean, while supporting our watermen. This is critical to protect our environment and economy.”

Virginia Congressman Rob Wittman also voiced support.

“The Chesapeake Bay is cleaner, and our marine communities are better off now thanks to the many contributions of VIMS,” he said. “By working with watermen to remove derelict crab pots, the program will benefit both our local economies and the health of the Chesapeake Bay.”

“This funding is further recognition of the important role VIMS has in Virginia and builds on their recognition as a nationwide leader on coastal issues,” added Virginia’s Secretary of Natural and Historic Resources Travis Voyles. “By supporting our watermen and further protecting our marine resources, the TRAP program will be a win-win for the Commonwealth.”

Virginia State Sen. Monty Mason said, “I have absolute faith that this program at VIMS will produce meaningful research and solutions to keep our water resources clean.”

A Louisiana crab boat returns to the dock with a load of recovered derelict crab traps. (VIMS photo)

Havens said that potential applicants for future TRAP awards include organizations that already have experience in removing derelict traps, as well as those that can demonstrate sufficient capacity to implement a successful removal project. VIMS will again lead pot-removal activities in Virginia waters.

The TRAP program will operate under the auspices of the NOAA Marine Debris Program and the best management practices of its Derelict Fishing Gear Assessment Framework. TRAP staff will engage with existing gear-removal partners to develop standard sampling protocols.

One such partner is the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, which has worked with lobstermen for more 15 years to remove and recycle thousands of lost lobster pots. “Data collection not only needs to be increased but standardized as well,” said Erin Pelletier, the foundation’s executive director. Another gear-removal partner is Natural Resources Consultants (NRC) of Seattle, which has teamed with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, NGOs, Treaty Tribes and other agencies to remove more than 6,000 derelict Dungeness crab and shrimp pots from Puget Sound during the last two decades. Kyle Antonelis, NRC vice president and senior fisheries analyst, said, “We look forward to continuing these partnership efforts and strongly support a national program to standardize data collection.”

Editor’s note: Water is one of four cornerstone initiatives in W&M’s Vision 2026 strategic plan. Visit the Vision 2026 website to learn more.