Six Key West charter captains spent three days this week getting paid to haul debris, not fish, from the waters around the Lower Keys.

Ocean Aid 360’s Ghost Trap Rodeo took place in Key West Feb. 22-24 and removed more than 6,000 pounds of ghost traps, trap line and other marine debris from the ocean and shorelines.

Ghost traps are abandoned stone crab or lobster traps that are lost when their floating buoy marker is dislodged from the trap and the owner can no longer locate it due to a storm or a boat propeller cutting the trap line. 

Such traps continue to catch and kill marine life despite no longer being checked by an angler (called ghost fishing), and endanger vessels and marine mammals that may tangle in the gear.

These ghost traps become wasteful death traps for marine life that gets stuck inside them, but are never harvested. Animals die in the trap and then become the bait for the next batch of doomed fish.

“This was our first Ghost Trap Rodeo in Key West and on Day 1, our six captains hauled in 34 ghost traps and more than 1,000 yards of ghost line that could get caught in props or around a turtle or manatee,” said Capt. Neill Holland, who created the rodeos in 2017 with his partner Danielle Dawley. The first one took place in Tampa Bay. “By Day 2, our Key West total was over 6,800 pounds of line and debris and a whopping 88 traps, with one day to go.”

The events now take place throughout Florida and are funded through grants from NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the angler-led nonprofit Grassy Creek Foundation, which provides the funding to pay each participating charter captain $500 per four-hour day. Foundation founder Chad Pike wanted to provide financial help for local captains during the pandemic struggle while also supporting the rodeo cleanup, Holland said.

Since their inception, Ocean Aid 360’s Ghost Trap Rodeos have collected 35,500 pounds of marine debris and 563 ghost traps, which includes the Day 1 total from the Key West event, Holland said. 

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In addition to their daily pay, participating captains — being the competitive bunch that they are  — compete for $25,000 in prizes donated by tackle and gear companies to see which boat brings in the biggest haul.

Rodeo organizers provide the captains with a briefing before the event to ensure active traps aren’t disturbed. The rodeo is permitted by FWC and Monroe County, and event staff provides supplies needed to participate, including gloves, blankets and/or tarps (to safeguard their boats), tin snips, boat hooks and dip nets.

Participating captains in the Key West rodeo were: 

Capt. Dan Bieszka of flatsforfun.com; Capt. Jeremy Loercher of AtSeaKeyWest.com; Capt. Todd “Otis” Brubaker of http://brubakerguideservice.com/; Capt. Dane Karcher of https://walktheplankadventures.com/ Captains Casey and Natalie Hunt of http://www.cnitadventures.com/; Capt. Adam Marengo of https://www.facebook.com/skinnywatercharterskw/about/ and Capt. Forrest Shearin of https://www.gonecoastalcharterskw.com/.

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