Fishermen Sign Onto Clean Oceans
A two-year program to retrieve ghost traps from the ocean floor along the Maine coast has grappled up about 3,300 traps in varying condition. The program was led by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation program, and recruited the help of 71 fishing vessel crews.
Laura Ludwig, the coordinator of the foundation’s rope buyback program, said the gear retrieval was initiated as a result of the federal government’s mandate that most lobster fishermen must swap out floating groundline for sinking line.
Fishermen have said that sinking line chafes on the coast’s rocky bottom, and parts more quickly than floating line, thus leaving traps behind on the bottom.
“As a result of that, I started to pay attention to the amount of gear newly being left as a result of sinking groundlines,” Ludwig said during a presentation on marine debris at the Canadian/U.S. Lobstermen’s Town Meeting on March 23-24.
Ludwig said it was left to fishermen to decide where to search for lost traps.
About half of the retrieved traps were still useable, she said. The other half was sold for scrap steel, which paid for the cost of disposal.
“We got 1,300 or 1,400 that were fairly square, shall we say; 700 or 800 were reclaimed by their owners,” Ludwig said. “They all have tags in them, and we’d call the guys and they’d come down and pick them up and that was that. Of the ones that were not reclaimed, either because the guy came down and decided he didn’t want to reclaim them because they weren’t very good, or because they were unreachable or for whatever reason, even after our efforts to contact them, they still remained available for collection by the owner but they were housed at the Marine Patrol facility. The statute says that salvaged equipment can be auctioned off, so all were auctioned off to other lobstermen after a holding period of up to six months.”
Ludwig said the fishermen who enrolled in the retrieval effort were issued a special permit to handle the gear of other fishermen during the project’s timeframe. Generally, she said, handling another person’s lobster gear is illegal in the United States. That regulation makes it difficult for Good Samaritans who might be, say, taking a walk on the beach and wants to clean up washed-up gear.
“You can’t just take it off the beach to clean the beach,” she said.
The program was aimed primarily at cleanup, but participants were also able to “grab” some data from what they saw, she said. For example, about half of the traps’ escape panels functioned properly. Some of the older traps had vents that were still closed or they were fouled badly by shellfish colonies or flora. Some were freighted with mussels, she said.
“It’s a really great habitat for mussels,” she noted of the lost traps.
Ludwig said there is some thought in the industry that the lost traps might actually be beneficial for marine organisms, as habitat and protection.
Others view them as debris, she said.
Jim Knott, of Gloucester, Mass., said he takes the first view.
“I’ve been concerned about this derelict trap issue,” said Knott, who started lobster fishing in 1942. “The basis of the concern is that it has been proven through thousands of hours of videoing that lobsters go into traps, they feed and they leave, and that is a reason why the lobster population has exploded. There are more lobsters on the ocean floor today than ever before in history because what we are doing today is not fishing: We are farming, we are feeding these lobsters, and the population has exploded. It’s been proven that a hundred lobsters go into a trap and 94 of them leave, and six happen to be there when the trap is hauled. It’s just musical chairs. So why is a lobster in a derelict trap? He’s in the trap because he wants to be. And why does he want to be there? Because he’s protected from predators. So in my opinion, it would be wrong to remove those protective structures from the bottom of the ocean because those lobsters are making good use of them. Don’t you agree, Laura?”
“You know I don’t,” responded Ludwig, as what was clearly a familiar exchange between Knott and Ludwig brought laughs from the audience.
Ludwig said she would like to hear more from fishermen about their experience with the number of traps now lost as a result of using sinking line and said traps are not the only form of marine debris found in the Gulf of Maine.She said bait boxes coated with plastic on the inside are finding their way into the ocean, as are other forms of fishing gear.
“The disposal costs of fishing gear are prohibitively high if you have to pay by weight at the dump, and so disposal of gear that you no longer want is an issue,” Ludwig said. “The ocean is out of sight, out of mind, and therefore it is anecdotally recorded that there is dumping of gear that is no longer wanted. And, in fact, in Casco Bay last year, when we did the gear recovery program, we dragged back a lot of cable that had been strung out over several miles off a drum.”
Friendship fisherman Richard Nelson said he was concerned about the plastic parts of the traps, such as vents and tags, as well as buoys and ropes, that get left in the ocean. He asked for some research on alternative materials.
Ludwig said there are now some plant-based, biodegradable vents available, developed for the Chesapeake Bay crab fishery.
“These are things that people are talking about,” she said.
Biologist Hans Laufer said the chemicals that leach out of plastics have harmful effects on lobsters and other marine organisms.
“Europeans are cutting down on plastics by substituting glass bottles for soda bottles,” Laufer said. “And I think we should be thinking about eliminating plastic.”
“Next thing you know, someone will come up with the idea of having wooden lobster traps,” joked moderator Ted Hoskins.
Theresa Torrent-Ellis, of the State Planning Office’s Maine Coastal Program, said single-use plastic has become a primary source of debris found during the program’s annual CoastWeek coastal cleanup, which is part of an international coastal cleanup.
“This is becoming a pretty serious issue, the presence of plastics at so many different levels in the marine environment, from the bits to the larger pieces,” said Torrent-Ellis. “There have been impacts to animal safety and aesthetics, and now we’re finding there might be larger impacts that we didn’t know about before.”
A waste management initiative set up by a nonprofit organization called Clean Nova Scotia has found that up to 95 percent of litter washed up on beaches in Nova Scotia can be attributed to fishing-related activities, said the program’s Ashley David.
The initiative is called Ship to Shore, and it works with fishermen and harbors “to spread the message on the importance of returning waste to shore for proper disposal,” said David.
More than 200 fishermen and 20 harbors across the province have endorsed the program, she said, adding Ship to Shore got its start five years ago when fishermen, Department of Fisheries and Oceans managers, and regional waste educators took an interest in fisheries waste management.
Many harbors have inadequate disposal areas, litter at the high-tide line proliferated, and a big issue has been bait boxes, she said.
“We know they’re being thrown overboard in Nova Scotia,” she said. “We did a survey of fishermen, and we found about 600,000 of these boxes are thrown overboard every year in the maritime regions by lobster fishermen. And a lot of fishermen have concerns about that.”
A typical bait box is cardboard and lined inside with plastic she said. Some fishermen burned their garbage on the beach, and in one harbor, Ship to Shore worked with local officials to set aside a fish shed for waste disposal and recycling, she said, . The Ship to Shore program asks fishermen to sign pledges committing to return their waste to shore.
Fishermen involved in the program’s initial outreach are now bringing garbage back to shore and recycling, she said. And harbors are now paying about a tenth of what they were paying before for garbage disposal, she said.