By: Madison Hindo

A University of Florida junior and two UF alumni have teamed up to create Project GATOR, and their goal is to develop new techniques to combat the environmental issue of abandoned crab traps in the ocean.

Project GATOR stands for Ghost/Abandoned Trap Observation and Recovery, and it was created by Gloria Li, Sean McKnight and Richard Barker in Fall 2016. The group is looking for a solution to the problem of ghost fishing, which is when fishing gear gets lost in oceans and continues to trap wildlife.

Barker, 23, said Project GATOR is trying to use underwater robots to develop a method to recover abandoned crab traps. They are attempting to use a robot to attach tethers to abandoned traps and then bring the traps onto a boat.

Li, a 20-year-old environmental science and philosophy junior, said she learned about the issue from talking to McKnight at a seminar, and they decided to apply for a grant together to fund Project GATOR. The project is primarily funded through a grant from the U.S. Department of State.

Project GATOR’s State Department grant period ends in October, but they plan to continue working on the project afterward. The group is currently carrying out tests with the OpenROV robot.

Project GATOR has worked with organizations such as the Machine Intelligence Laboratory at UF, Nature Coast Biological Station and Florida Sea Grant over the last year to help develop solutions to ghost fishing.

Li said they worked with the Machine Intelligence Laboratory in the early design stages of the project, and they did tests with the SubjuGator, which is an autonomous underwater vehicle created by the MIL. However, the group switched to using the OpenROV robot instead because it was better suited for their objectives.

Nature Coast Biological Station helped Project GATOR by allowing them to borrow crab traps and connecting them with industry experts at organizations such as Florida Sea Grant, Li said.

Our goal is to create an innovative, cost-effective solution for the recovery of ghost traps that we can introduce to people working in the industry, Li said.   

Micheal Allen, the director of Nature Coast Biological Station, said NCBS is a research center that deals with natural resource conservation and management on the Nature Coast of Florida, which stretches from Hernando County to Wakulla County on the western coast.

Allen said ghost fishing often occurs after storms because nets and traps can get moved around easily during storm conditions. This makes it difficult for commercial fishermen to locate them, and the traps remain in the water catching wildlife.  

“There is a lifespan to traps so they don’t fish forever, but there definitely is a period [of time] where the gear will continue to catch and kill marine organisms,” Allen said.

The length of time that traps continue to capture marine organisms can be anywhere from months to years, but it is dependent on the location of the trap and how the trap was built.

According to a Miami Herald article from Sept. 24, 2017, Hurricane Irma displaced many lobster traps in the Florida Keys. The missing lobster traps pose financial problems for the lobster fishermen because the traps cost about $35 each.

There were about 350,000 lobster traps in Monroe County and Miami-Dade County before the hurricane hit, and the majority of these traps went missing during the storm. Some lobster fisherman have lost up to 90 percent of their traps. Many lobster fishermen are trying to recover the lost traps, but the traps will continue to continue to pose a threat to the environment until they are removed from the water.

“[Ghost fishing] is a problem, there’s no doubt about that,” Allen said.

Photo by Gloria Li