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Solution Search Entry

Biodegradable Panels for Crab and Lobster Pots

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Innovative Marine Products & Solutions

Biodegradable Panels for Crab and Lobster Pots

Kirk Havens

Millions of crab and lobster pots are deployed annually, of which hundreds of thousands are lost or abandoned each year. These derelict pots continue to ‘ghost’ fish for many years, resulting in depletion of fisheries, economic loss to the seafood industry, and higher prices at the market for buyers. It would be beneficial to have a reliable mechanism which will prevent derelict pots from continuing to capture animals. We have developed and extensively field-tested a new biodegradable plastic product that is inexpensive, environmentally benign, easy to install on existing pots, and does not negatively impact functionality. All states in the USA that have a crab or lobster fishery have identified ‘ghost’ fishing of lost pots as a significant problem both economically and environmentally.

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Biodiversity Impact

Describe how your solution creates sustainable fisheries and promotes ecosystem health.
Lost or abandoned pots can continue to trap and kill animals, including commercially important finfish and shellfish, for years. Species that are entrapped and die in derelict pots can act as an attractant to crabs (‘ghost’ fishing) resulting in self-baiting. Commercial operations in the Chesapeake Bay lose between 10% and 20% of the more than 500,000 pots deployed annually. In the Gulf of Mexico, pot loss is estimated at 25%, with 250,000 derelict blue crab pots added to the Gulf annually. Similar pot loss rates are reported for the lobster industry, which has over 3 million lobster pots deployed annually in Maine alone. In Florida, more than 900,000 lobster pots without escape gaps are deployed by commercial fishermen each year. Some regions have regulations in place that require degradable components on pots to allow escape of animals once the pot is lost. However, those requirements were put in place decades ago, and the technologies that were utilized (rot cord latches, springs, hinges) have been shown to be ineffective. Studies in Maine have shown that escape mechanisms that rely on hinges or degradable attachment points fail due to encrustation of bio-fouling organisms such as barnacles which hold the hinge or non-degradable panel in place once the pot is lost. The only mechanism that allows for adequate escape of trapped animals is a panel that is fully biodegradable and does not rely on hinges or detachable components which become encrusted over time and fail to detach.

Describe how your solution protects biodiversity against local threats.
‘Ghost’ fishing by derelict fishing gear can continue to capture economically important crabs, lobsters, and fish and adversely impact local fishing communities. With populations down, local fisheries can suffer economic losses and fishing opportunities can decrease. A 2002 study showed the UK fishing industry losing over $31 million a year due to marine debris and ghost fishing while ghost catch of monkfish off northern Spain equated to almost 1.5% of the commercial landings. In the USA, it is estimated that $250 million worth of lobsters are lost in derelict pots annually (UNEP 2011). In the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay, removal of 18,000 derelict blue crab pots was estimated to equate to saving over $300,000 in blue crabs in one year (Havens et al. 2011). Capture of target species and by-catch of other species by derelict pots is a significant problem. A project in Virginia that hired unemployed watermen to remove lost pots has removed more than 28,000 over the last three winters. Trapped in those pots were over 27,000 animals including blue crabs, Atlantic croaker, white perch, catfish, spot, red drum, black drum, striped bass, flounder, diamondback terrapins, and even muskrats and ducks.Our biodegradable panels are a functional, inexpensive ($1 US), easy to install, environmentally neutral solution to the ‘ghost’ fishing problem of lost and abandoned pots. The IMPS biodegradable panel provides the solution to a problem that affects the fishing industry, local economies, fishing communities, marine species populations, and the customer at the fish market.

How large is the surface area where your solution is being applied?
Initially, the Chesapeake Bay, USA (1,160,056 hectares) and New England coast of the USA, but can be applied worldwide anywhere crab or lobster pots are deployed.

Human Wellbeing and Livelihoods Impact

How does your solution improve human wellbeing or improve livelihoods and how many people are being impacted by your solution?
Seafood is a multi-billion dollar industry and sustains local communities and livelihoods worldwide. ‘Ghost’ fishing by derelict fishing gear can continue to capture economically important crabs, lobsters, and fish and adversely impact the fishing industry. With fisheries populations already depressed in many areas, losses due to derelict gear can exacerbate commercial fishing economic losses and decreased recreational fishing opportunities. In order for a new technology to be viable: 1) the modification must render the pot no longer capable of capturing marine life within one season of loss, 2) any material used in the modification must be environmentally neutral upon degradation, 3) the modification must be relatively inexpensive and easy to install in order to be of practical use, and 4) the catch of the target species must be maintained. Our IMPS biodegradable cull panel provides the solution to a problem that affects any community that depends upon a pot or trap fishery.


How many years has your solution been applied?
1 year

Have others reproduced your solution elsewhere?

Sustainability & Resilience

How do you manage your solution?
We have developed a biodegradable cull ring panel that meets American Society for Testing and Materials standards for use in the marine environment. A specific biodegradable polymer(polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA))was selected as the panel material for its durability, environmental neutrality, minimal expense and ease of use. PHA is a plant-based biodegradable polymer certified by ASTM to fully degrade in the marine environment. This is important since the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the UN Environment Programme are advocating restricted use of non-degradable polymers in the marine environment. Most so-called ‘degradable plastics’ are not truly degradable and simply fragment into smaller non-degradable components (micro-plastics). Micro-plastics have been identified as a threat to the marine food web since they may be mistaken for food and consumed by zooplankton. The durability of the product, low cost, ease of use, and compatibility with existing pots are all critical elements to ensure industry acceptance and compliance with any regulations. Our current panel design incorporates a cull ring of regulation size. Cull rings, or escape rings, allow small, sub-legal crabs and lobsters to escape. Inclusion of the cull ring as part of the biodegradable cull panel will minimize costs to the user, since cull rings are mandated on pots in most Atlantic coastal states. As our IMPS panel degrades, it expands the size of the escape hatch such that mature crabs and other animals can also escape. In practical terms, anything that can enter the pot could escape.


Describe the management and governance aspects of your solution as they relate to your local community.
Over the last two years, we have extensively tested different materials and designs in order to develop the current prototype. Working with local watermen, we have field-tested the biodegradable panels to confirm that the panels (i) do not affect catch rates, and (ii) degrade sufficiently within the desired time period. In Virginia, 300,000 commercial crab pots are deployed annually with similar blue crab fisheries along the US Atlantic coast. In the Gulf of Mexico, over 1 million pots are deployed annually. In addition to commercial activity, there is a widespread recreational fishery that utilizes crab pots. In Maine, over 3 million lobster pots are deployed annually with additional lobster fisheries in the New England states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and Connecticut. In addition, over 900,000 spiny lobster pots are deployed in Florida with an additional spiny lobster fishery in California. Finally, the Pacific Coast Dungeness crab fishery is a tens of millions of dollars per year fishery that deploys millions of pots from California to Alaska and British Columbia. Recent studies have shown that in Alaska alone 100,000 pots are lost annually and that the degradable cord practice is ineffective with 80% of the pots illegally rigged and 20% of those recovered older than 7 years still ghost fishing. There is a strong possibility that regulations will be enacted in one or more states requiring more functional degradable implements in crab and lobster pots, and we believe our technology is superior to other approaches, while remaining inexpensive ($1 US).