Commercial watermen in Virginia and Maryland hauled in unusual catches in February and March. Instead of fish or crabs, they snagged thousands of derelict "ghost pots" that had been lost by watermen and abandoned over time.

More than 450 watermen in Maryland and another 66 in Virginia participated in program, which uses federal blue crab disaster funds from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to pay watermen for their work.

Scientists say as many as a fifth of the crab pots used in the Bay each year are lost because of storms, boat propellers cutting lines between pots and marker buoys, or other events.

"This is a proverbial win-win for everyone," said Commissioner Steven Bowman of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission. "The Bay is cleaner. The scientists improved our knowledge base. And these watermen had jobs for the winter, which is especially beneficial in these difficult economic times. I'm very pleased with the program's success."

The abandoned pots are a concern because they continue to catch fish and other creatures, which is sometimes called "ghost fishing." Research suggests an abandoned pot may actively fish for an average of about two years before it deteriorates and falls apart.

The 9,000 pots pulled out of Virginia's portion of the Bay and its tributaries this year captured 9,800 animals, including crabs, turtles, fish, eels, and ducks. Scientists from the Virginia Institute of Marine Science estimate that each functional lost crab pot can capture about 50 crabs a year.

"The watermen continue to amaze us with the amount of material they recover and their enthusiasm," said Kirk Haves, who oversees the recovery program for VIMS.

The program costs about $1 million a year. This was the second year of the program in Virginia.

In Maryland, watermen had pulled nearly 1,500 abandoned crab pots from the West, Patuxent and Patapsco rivers in late February and early March, but the program was expected to expand into other areas.

Programs in both states use a technique developed by the NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, which discovered that sidescan sonars, commonly used to map bottom areas, can easily identify the location of ghost pots. In the recovery programs, the crews use the sonar to find the pots, then yank them from the water.

"The watermen are earning this money, it's a job and a half," said Waterman Crew Chief J.R. Gross.

The location of the pots, their condition and contents are also recorded.

Both states plan to continue the program next year.