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Volunteers save marine creatures from death traps

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Published:   |   Updated: July 13, 2013 at 11:44 PM

RIVERVIEW - Several dozen volunteers put their digits at risk Saturday, pulling abandoned crab traps from Tampa Bay and gingerly removing the marine critters trapped inside before they could clamp on to their fingers.

Every other summer, Tampa Bay Watch organizes a derelict crab trap removal effort to rid area waters of the abandoned mesh cages that otherwise become death traps for crabs, fish and other marine creatures.

This year, some 30 boats and 65 volunteers fanned out from Fort DeSoto to the eastern shore and in to Upper Tampa Bay collecting dozens of abandoned traps, including 36 around Fort DeSoto, 10 on the eastern shore, and 42 near the Courtney Campbell Causeway and in to Upper Tampa Bay.

"I was surprised they found so many in Upper Tampa Bay, but they may have found even more in Belleair," said organizer Serra Herndon, habitat restoration director for the non-profit Tampa Bay Watch. Last time, she said, volunteers in that area collected more than 90 traps. She'll collect the rest of the numbers on Monday.

In one boat leaving from Williams Park in Riverview on Saturday, recreational fisherman Frank Gallant, of Tampa packed two tarps, wire cutters and gloves for the outing. He and Hillsborough County Environmental Protection Commission Biologist Kevin Campbell - also volunteering - used the tools to retrieve, then cut open a trap they found near Whiskey Stump Key, north of the Big Bend Power Station.

With a high tide and tanic water pouring out of the Alafia River and in to the bay as a result of a very rainy July, the effort proved difficult, Campbell said. He said the lack of water clarity hampered the effort.

The one trap the pair did find, however, contained 13 blue crabs, two stone crabs, 16 live fighting conchs and numerous other marine creatures, all set free after Campbell and Gallant removed the wire mesh basket from the water and cut it open.

"We don't want them out there," said site captain Ethan Mathiak, a water monitor for the EPC when he isn't working as a volunteer. As long as the traps remain in the water, they are a menace to sea life, he said. "It's totally legal to have traps in the bay..." but not without the proper markings and floats so they can be monitored and retrieved, he said.

Robin Knowles, his wife Lorna and 15-year-old son, Matthew, all of Riverview, also joined in the trap removal. "We fish and are very active on the water," Robin Knowles said. "We were brought up on the Alafia River," so volunteering to help clean the nearby bay is a natural fit for the family, he said.

The Knowles family went out in a boat with Carol Cassels of Audubon of Florida. They found only one trap that was deeply buried in the sand, but they were able to remove numerous floats and rope from the water, Cassels said.

Blake Harris, a fishing boat captain who often brings clients to fish along the eastern shore, idled along the edge of the mangrove islands south of Riverview. He and cleanup partner Chris Pratt, also a water monitor for EPC, managed to locate and remove four traps, all filled with crabs and other marine life.

The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission oversees and issues permits to groups like Tampa Bay Watch so they can conduct the cleanup efforts.

The traps can only be removed by groups holding such permits. Tampering with traps otherwise, even if abandoned, is a third degree felony in Florida and can come with a fine of up to $5,000 and a permanent revocation of fishing privileges.

yhammett@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7127

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