When Virginia closed its winter dredge fishery in 2008, waterman Clay Justis turned his attention from catching crabs that season to collecting the gear that captures them.
He was one of several watermen hired under a program that taught them to use sonar to find and remove lost and abandoned fishing gear, primarily crab pots, littering the bottom of the Bay.
“As a waterman, I knew there was stuff on the bottom, but when I turned the machine on, I was like, ‘Wow!’” said Justis, who fishes out of Accomack on the Eastern Shore.
Out of sight in the Bay’s often murky water, crab pots lay scattered all over the bottom, the sonar showed — along with other fishing gear such as gill nets, and all manner of trash, even a laundry machine.
But the so-called “ghost pots” are a special concern because the wire mesh cages with openings to draw crabs in but not let them out can continue to catch — and kill — crabs and fish for years. They are taking a bite out of both the crab populations and the wallets of watermen. More often than not, Justis noted, the derelict pots he pulled up had something in them. “You’ve got fish, you’ve got crabs, you’ve got ducks. All kinds of things,” he said. But, he added, “most of the time, they are dead.”