20 years of crab trap removal on the Texas coast

Conservation work is often long and the results are not immediately visible.

The labor to restore a habitat or save a species can be measured in years, decades and generations. Often the fruits of conservation labor will not be fully realized in one’s lifetime.

But not the Texas Crab Trap Removal Program. Rarely are the results so visibly instantaneous.

The Texas Crab Trap Removal Program recently concluded its 20th anniversary. During a 10-day crabbing closure, approximately 250 volunteers removed 1,258 abandoned crab traps from Texas bays.

Achievements over the past two decades have all started with one person watching a beloved place be ruined by a deluge of abandoned crab pots. The program started with one person who chose to take action.

As usual, Ronnie Luster was in his airboat on Port O’Connor’s Shoalwater Bay picking up traps during this year’s close.

It is this same body of water that the 79-year-old man came to cherish as a teenager. He spent many days hunting ducks and fishing for rockfish and speckled trout in Shoalwater Bay. Over the years, he has seen this place transform with the emergence of the commercial crabbing industry. In the 1960s, he saw no crab pots on the water. The traps have slowly multiplied over the decades, so slowly that newcomers to the area may not have noticed the problem. But Luster and others on the water noticed.

Ronnie Luster in his airboat, removing crab traps on Shoalwater Bay.

Courtesy of Sam Caldwell

In 2000, Luster finally got fed up, and he and his wife rode his boat a few miles through Shoalwater Bay to count the traps.

“I was able to visually see an area of ​​my life that went from no crab pots to a few crab pots and many crab pots, and when my wife and I did this run, we counted 1,800 lockers in there,” Luster said. .

“It was such a visible problem. If you fished, whatever you did on the berries, you saw the problem.

Luster, an inaugural member of the Texas Coastal Conservation Association, has teamed up with Texas game warden Rex Mayes to clean up Shoalwater Bay. CCA Texas volunteers and game wardens provided by Mayes fanned out across the bay collecting traps. The first run brought in 800. A few weeks later they picked up over 700 more.

In Texas, the first year of the Crab Trap Removal Program, nearly 600 volunteers removed 8,000 abandoned traps.

In Texas, the first year of the Crab Trap Removal Program, nearly 600 volunteers removed 8,000 abandoned traps.

Courtesy of Sam Caldwell

Each trap is a potential killing machine. These abandoned crab pots may be abandoned and forgotten, but they are not forgiving. Cages can continue to trap and kill long after they are lost, wreaking havoc on sea life in a vicious cycle known as “ghost fishing”.

Traps can not only condemn crabs, but also species of fish, turtles, otters and more. Whether moved by weather conditions or simply abandoned, these traps can destroy habitat, damage boat engines and injure waders.

The first races on Shoalwater Bay demonstrated both a desperate need to clean up the clutter in Texas bays and a great effort by volunteers eager to help. However, crab traps could not be removed without a game warden. By law, traps were considered private property and could only be handled by law enforcement. Game wardens had to post notices for traps and needed a court order to destroy them.

“Without the goalkeepers, we couldn’t have done it. But that couldn’t go on, you couldn’t do that with the entire coastline of the state of Texas,” Luster said, noting the limited number of guardians along an expansive coastline.

Thus, CCA Texas lobbied for the law to be changed. In 2001, a bill was passed to close the crab fishery for 10 days. During the closure, crab pots on the water are considered garbage and can be removed by anyone.

“Without the change in legislation to have a closed season, the program would never have progressed to a coastwide recovery program,” Luster said.

The Texas Crab Trap Removal Program depends on volunteers to help clean up the state's bay systems.

The Texas Crab Trap Removal Program depends on volunteers to help clean up the state’s bay systems.

Courtesy of Sam Caldwell

A year later, about 600 volunteers removed 8,000 crab pots from the Texas coast and a successful program was born, one that other coastal states copied. Today, people from CCA Texas, Galveston Bay Foundation, San Antonio Bay Partnership, Coastal Bend Bays & Estuaries Program, and US Fish and Wildlife Service are volunteering for crab trap removal with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.

Over 41,000 traps have been removed since the program was officially launched by TPWD. According to TPWD estimates, these efforts saved more than 650,000 blue crabs from a senseless death.

TPWD has seen a drop in the number of traps removed each year, showing that the program is a success. On a weekend day during this year’s shutdown, Luster pulled out a dozen traps, both an indication of how far the program has come in 20 years and its continued need.

After two decades, Luster said the key to the program is “instant gratification” that keeps volunteers coming back year after year.

The effects of this program are visible and immediate. For volunteers, there’s nothing quite like hoisting a trap and releasing fish into the water, saving lives. To look back at an open bay that was filled with wire mesh hours before.

“I will never forget that feeling,” Luster said.

Ronnie Luster, inaugural member of the Texas Coastal Conservation Association and founder of the Texas Crab Trap Removal Program.

Ronnie Luster, inaugural member of the Texas Coastal Conservation Association and founder of the Texas Crab Trap Removal Program.

Courtesy of Sam Caldwell

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