FLASH MOB: Wade Blackwood’s M.B.A. ’06 company, Mobjack Binnacle Products, provides a fail safe against lost crab, lobster and fish traps. Using technology developed at VIMS, Mobjack products degrade completely into naturally occurring, environmentally friendly microbes to prevent traps from continuing to catch and kill marine life.
Photo by Adam Ewing
For those who make their living on the water, the thousands of crab pots marooned on the ocean floor and slowly being covered over with marine fauna are a painful reminder of missed opportunity: equipment lost, crabs uncaught, dollars unearned.
But for one enterprising graduate of the Raymond A. Mason School of Business, those opportunities aren’t so much missed as they are untapped.
Using technology developed at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS), Wade Blackwood M.B.A. ’06, is using his company, Mobjack Binnacle Products, to turn those abandoned crab pots into ecologically thriving sites while also helping further regional efforts to restore the Chesapeake Bay’s beloved blue crab population.
“It just kind of hit one day,” said Blackwood. “It was just, ‘I need to do this now.’”
The blue crab, Callinectes sapidus — a name that, fittingly, means “beautiful savory swimmer” — is as much a part of the Virginia identity as Thomas Jefferson or a ham biscuit. John Smith described them as “exceeding good and very great” in his Generall Historie of Virginia, and millions of pounds of the crustacean are harvested every year, making an important contribution to the state economy. In 2008 however, in the face of declining crab harvests and at the request of Virginia Gov. Timothy Kaine and Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez declared the Chesapeake blue crab fishery a federal disaster, kicking off a wave of regulatory efforts in both states to rebuild the crab population.
Increased pollution in the Bay and overfishing — particularly of the female crabs that ensure the continuance of the species — were obvious culprits for the decline in the harvests. But a lesser-known problem concerns what is called “marine debris,” a label that encompasses not only the vast amount of trash that humans produce and that ends up in our waterways and oceans, but also lost or abandoned fishing gear.
In the Chesapeake, a large quantity of that gear is crab pots. Whether abandoned by fishermen or lost after their lines are cut or capsized by propellers or barges, those “perfect killing machines” remain on the Bay floor, continuing to capture and kill marine species — and not just crabs.
“They’re fairly indiscriminate,” said Kirk Havens, assistant director at VIMS’ Center for Coastal Resources Management and director of the Coastal Watershed Program.
They’re also fairly extensively scattered. A four-year study conducted by VIMS between 2008 and 2012 in partnership with the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and commercial watermen found that some 50,000 crab pots are lost or abandoned in Virginia waters every year, leading to the annual loss of roughly 900,000 blue crabs valued at $300,000.
The solution to this “ghost fishing” that VIMS designed is what Blackwood calls a “fail safe.” Crab pots have long included escape panels in case a trap is lost, but they often work imperfectly, either degrading too fast or not at all or relying on mechanisms that malfunction in the unpredictable ocean environment.
VIMS put a twist on the traditional design by constructing its escape panel of polyhydroxyalkanoates, a naturally occurring polymer that can be manipulated like plastic but completely biodegrades in a marine environment as bacteria attach to it and consume it as food. The speed of that process depends on the thickness of the panel and how often it’s exposed to sunlight, which inhibits the growth of the bacteria. Panels on abandoned traps, shielded from light, will break down more rapidly, allowing trapped creatures to return to freedom unharmed. Elegantly, the trap then becomes a benign part of the environment as species such as oysters attach to it and fish or crustaceans use it as shelter.
Tests determined that the panels didn’t reduce catch rates, and prototypes were created for other species, such as lobster and stone crab. Through the College’s Office of Technology Transfer, two related inventions were patented. But then, said Blackwood, “the process just stopped.”
That’s where he came in. With a background in business and a lifetime of experience with Virginia’s waterways, Blackwood, currently the executive director of the American Canoe Association, had noticed the abundance of abandoned crab pots in the Bay firsthand. Researching the problem, he quickly found that VIMS had a solution to it — but that it wasn’t widely known.
“It just seemed like all these pieces were fitting together to do a good thing,” he said.
So the self-described “fixer,” the history graduate and Peace Corps alumnus who went back to school for business because he wanted to learn what made companies tick and what drove the intricate process of acquisitions decision-making, made a decision himself: he purchased the exclusive licenses for the devices from William & Mary and set about building a company around them.
Mobjack, which is approaching its first birthday, aims to make it easy for watermen to adopt the technological improvement. Blue crab escape panels sell for $1.50 each and can be retrofitted to a waterman’s current traps. Each panel lasts an entire season, meaning, said Blackwood, “price points shouldn’t be a barrier.”
Watermen have already begun to buy into the idea, with about 1,000 people currently testing out the device themselves.
“Nobody likes to be told what to do,” said Blackwood. “Everyone likes the concept, but they need to prove that it actually works. They’re not going to take our word for it.”
Slow and steady, he hopes, will win the race. By working to grow the company organically instead of focusing on lobbying policymakers to mandate that watermen use the VIMS-developed biopanels, Blackwood strives to get stakeholders committed to the solution he’s selling.
“I want people to do the right thing,” he said. “It’s not about making money.”