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Marine Life & Conservation

Crab Pot Project Gets a Thumbs Up



As a busy-body pelican landed nearby to watch, Manteo crabber Troy Outland pulled his 32-foot Manning boat astride a barnacle-covered chunk of white buoy while mate Derek Thacker pulled it from Croatan Sound.

“That one’s been there for a while,” Outland said, eyeing the dripping remnant of a crab pot.

The line was slimy with algae and grass and attached to the rusted remains of the pot’s metal bottom frame. Bingo: A derelict pot. Thacker wound up the line and stashed it at the stern. Outland recorded identifying information, time and location and started his motor to look for more.

So began day one of the N.C. Coastal Federation’s two-year pilot project to collect lost or discarded fishing gear littering waterways in north eastern North Carolina.

Outland, a full-time crabber for 37 years, was one of nine watermen hired to scour the waters for two days last week, coming behind the annual cleanup done by the N.C. Marine Patrol.

“You don’t really make a lot of money, after fuel costs,” he said. “I’m doing it because I think it’s a good project.”

By the time the first phase wrapped up at week’s end, surprisingly little debris was found by the watermen. Still, the effort, the first of its kind in North Carolina, achieved what it was designed to do: Bring watermen, regulators, and conservationists together for the benefit of the resource they all share.

“Overall, we were astounded that we didn’t see more pots,” said Willy Phillips, owner of Full Circle Crab Co. in Columbia. “That was a real revelation to us.”

Phillips, who has been crabbing in North Carolina waters since the 1980s, said that the lack of big storms in recent years is one likely reason that more crab pots were not found after two days scouring parts of the Pamlico, Roanoke, Croatan, Albemarle and Currituck sounds, the Alligator River and Kitty Hawk Bay.

Also, with the increasing cost of crab pots, he said, crabbers have become more diligent about retrieving their gear. When he was crabbing in the 1980s, Phillips said, pots cost about $6.50 each. Now they each cost about $45.  And pots are not made to last as long as they once did, so they deteriorate quicker – as soon as two years.

“Back in the day, there was a lot more gear left out,” Phillips said. “It was just that there weren’t as many people out there to keep track of it.”


Willy Phillips


Ladd Bayliss


As long as there are pots put in the water, one way or another, some will end up disappearing, being abandoned, tossed adrift by hurricanes or even stolen.

Plucking lost or orphaned crab pots out of the water is a lot more challenging than it sounds. The remnants of buoys can be indistinguishable from a bird or a whitecap on the water. Gear is often buried or tangled. Phillips explained that in bad weather, the buoys start “corkscrewing” and are eventually pulled under the water. Then over time, he said, the buoys will slowly “unkink” themselves.

Other pots, perhaps taken away by a storm or cut by boat propellers, are often found with their lines twisted around bridge pilings.

“When I started here nine years ago, we picked up roughly 10,000 pots that were out in the sound between Jan. 15 and Jan. 24,” said Sgt. Odell Williams, who works the southern half of the northern district of the N.C. Marine Patrol – half of Hyde and Dare counties. “Every year it has gone down – the last several years significantly.”

This year, he said, the patrol probably picked up less than 300 pots.

By law, crab pots must be out of the water from Jan. 15 through Feb. 7, but the water can be opened after Jan. 19 if few pots are found.

Williams said he attributes the steady decrease in orphaned and derelict gear to better Marine Patrol enforcement and more cooperation from watermen. When officers find a pot, they look for the tag that identifies the owner. If they find it, they will usually call the crabber to come fetch his pots. Otherwise, a court order must be obtained to have them destroyed.

Less often, Williams said, a ticket is issued to the crabber, who would be facing over $200 in fines and court costs. “Storms come in; fishermen lose their pots,” he said. “We try to be respectful to the fishermen. Everybody does not deserve a ticket.”

Williams said that throughout the planning and implementation of the project, the relationship between marine law enforcement, the watermen and the federation has been “excellent.”

“We’ve really enjoyed working with them,” Williams said.  “We’ve gotten along great.”

The genesis for the project came from the successful marine debris program launched several years ago in the Chesapeake Bay. By 2012, tens of thousands of derelict crab and peeler pots in Virginia and Maryland waters had been collected.

Volunteers unearth a crab pot from the beach. Photo: Sara Mirabilio

Volunteers unearth a crab pot from the beach. Photo: Sara Mirabilio

Although the Chesapeake program was the inspiration for the federation project, it was expected that it would need to be tailored to the different conditions in northeastern N.C. waters, said Ladd Bayliss, the coastal advocate in the federation’s Manteo office.

“I think in certain areas, we’ve got more tide, we’ve got more wind, we’re generally shallower,” she said. “It’s not apples to apples.”


John Bayliss is happy about his find.

Some boats were equipped with side-scan sonar, the first time the technology was put to work in North Carolina to find pots. Over the course of the project, Bayliss said, it became evident that the same protocol and retrieval methods employed in the Chesapeake were not appropriate in N.C. waters.

Out of the 30 or so crabbers who applied to work on the cleanup, Bayliss said, nine of them were hired to do the collection.  Boat captains were paid $300 a day and deck hands $100.

The second year of the pilot project, funded with a $35,000 grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, an $18,000 grant from North Carolina Sea Grant and $10,000 in matching funds, will be conducted in the same time period next year.

In the meantime, the lessons learned from this year will be used to make the collection process more effective and efficient in 2015.

“I feel like this time we were able to get a collaborative group of people together to get the mechanics worked out,” Phillips said. “We were on the same page.”

A marine debris program has been talked about in North Carolina for a long time, he said. But until last year, opposition and suspicion never allowed such a project to get beyond fits and starts.

“What I think is the star achievement of the grant is that the fishermen are actively collecting data,” Phillips said, referring mostly to by-catch found in crab cages.

Fishermen have been gun-shy about providing that data because of the perception that in the past they’ve been burned by increased regulations.

Phillips, a former member of the N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission, said that N.C. watermen have always contended that by-catch is not significant down here compared with Virginia.  But without the data, there’s no way to prove it.

A less obvious gain from the project is the positive experience of working cooperatively in a conservation effort that benefits all involved and serves the better good, Phillips said. It also shows that fishermen don’t just take from the public resource, as critics charge, but are willing to give back, he said.

“It’s an image-changer in the public’s eye,” Phillips said. “I really hope it will continue and expand.”

Article courtesy of

For more information on Ghost Fishing, visit

Catherine Kozak has been a reporter and writer on the Outer Banks since 1995. She worked for 15 years for "The Virginian Pilot." Born and raised in the suburbs outside New York City, Catherine earned her journalism degree from the State University of New York at New Paltz. During her career, she has written about dozens of environmental issues, including oil and gas exploration, wildlife habitat protection, sea level rise, wind energy production, shoreline erosion and beach nourishment. She lives in Nags Head.

Marine Life & Conservation

The Big Shark Pledge: Shark Trust’s new campaign kicks off with a call for support



With the ink still drying on last week’s landmark listing of nearly 100 species of sharks on Appendix II of CITES, the Shark Trust insists that this is not the time for shark conservation to take a break. The UK-based NGO this week launches its biggest-ever concerted campaign to tackle the overfishing of oceanic sharks. They are calling on people across the world to join the call for stricter controls on high seas fisheries.

The Big Shark Pledge is at the heart of an ambitious set of campaign actions. Working to secure science-based catch limits on all sharks and rays affected by the international high seas fishing fleet. The pledge will build the largest campaigning community in shark and ray conservation history to support a raft of policy actions over the vital years ahead.

Many of our best known and much-loved sharks make their home on the high seas. In our shared ocean, these oceanic sharks and rays face a very real threat from a huge international fleet of industrial-scale fishing vessels. Research published in early 2021 confirmed that over three-quarters of oceanic sharks and rays are now at risk of extinction due to the destructive impact of overfishing. They have declined by 71% over the last 50 years.

The Shark Trust is celebrating its 25th Anniversary this year and has a long history of securing positive changes for sharks, skates and rays. The Big Shark Pledge will build on the success of their NoLimits? campaign which underpinned landmark catch limits on Blue Sharks and Shortfin Mako in the North Atlantic.

While the listing of so many species on the CITES trade agreement is certainly a positive step, there remains a huge challenge in ensuring that sustainable practices are embedded in international fisheries.” says Shark Trust Director of conservation, Ali Hood. “Sharks on the high seas face extraordinary pressure from excessive fishing practices. This has to be addressed through international agreements such as those secured for Blues and makos.”

There is hope and a feeling of momentum in the shark conservation community. Just last week, in addition to the new CITES listings, the Shark Trust, working with partners in the Shark League, secured the first-ever international quota for South Atlantic Mako at ICCAT meeting in Portugal. The new campaign from the Shark Trust aims to push forwards from here, engaging a wave of support through the Big Shark Pledge to bolster policy action.

This will be a long-term international and collaborative effort. Forging a pathway to rebuild populations of high-seas sharks and rays. By putting science at the heart of shark conservation and fisheries management. And making the vital changes needed to set populations on the road to recovery.

Shark Trust CEO Paul Cox says of the Big Shark Pledge “It’s designed to give everyone who cares about the future of sharks the chance to add their voice to effective and proven conservation action. By adding their name to the Pledge, supporters will be given opportunities to apply pressure at key moments to influence change.

Click here to sign the Big Shark Pledge

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Gear News

Fourth Element X Sea Shepherd



This year on Black Friday, fourth element announced their new partnership with Sea Shepherd, encouraging people to move away from mindless purchasing and to opt-in to supporting something powerful.

For 40 years Sea Shepherd, a leading non-profit organisation, has been patrolling the high seas with the sole mission to protect and conserve the world’s oceans and marine wildlife. They work to defend all marine wildlife, from whales and dolphins, to sharks and rays, to fish and krill, without exception.

Inspired by Sea Shepherd’s mission, fourth element have created a collection of fourth element X Sea Shepherd limited edition products for ocean lovers and protectors, with 15% of every sale going to the Sea Shepherd fund to help continue to drive conservation efforts globally.

“Working with Sea Shepherd gives fourth element the opportunity to join forces with one of the largest active conservation organisations in the world to try to catalyse change in people’s attitudes and behaviour. Fourth Element’s products are designed, developed and packaged with the intention of minimising our impact on the ocean environment, and with this partnership, we will be supporting the work of Sea Shepherd, in particular in their work on dealing with the twin threats of Ghost fishing nets and plastic pollution.”

Jim Standing fourth element co-founder

Read fourth element’s Sea Shepherd Opinion Piece HERE

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