The Working Waterfront

Fishing for trash

Lobster gear retrieval remains challenging

By Ben Fuller
Posted 2024-04-16
Last Modified 2024-04-17

A recent radio program on Maine’s lobster industry reminded me of island cleanups, the efforts to clean the stacks and tangles of lobster fishing debris.

In the radio program, answering a question about fishing trash, Patricia McCarron of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association noted that most cleanup effort was “under the radar” and done by volunteer and not-for-profit organizations.

McCarron is right. For 30 years or so I’ve been one of those volunteers who works shoreside cleanups, on islands and on the mainland. I’ve worked big ones, resulting in construction dumpsters full of crushed traps, ones that brought in several hundred traps that came off islands by ramp barge, ones that took trailer loads to the recycling center. Indeed, we now have a metal trap recycler in Maine.

I’ve filled boats with trash bags full of rope, buoys, and miscellaneous gear. I’ve put donation dollars towards the gas to move this trash to dumps and to dump fees,

Metal traps are far more recent, developed by Gloucester, Mass. fisherman James Knott Sr. in the late 1970s.

It wasn’t like this when I was young. The traps were wood and rotted. The line, while petrochemical based, deteriorated in a few years from sun and water. As I recall, trap buoys were transitioning from wood to foam. So, as a marine and fisheries historian, I got curious.

Buoy rope and other fishing gear like nets started transitioning from natural fiber shortly after rope makers took advantage of what had been learned making parachute cord of nylon during World War II. Now it is rare to find any natural fiber cordage at all, and makers have worked to make it more resistant to solar and use degradation.

Metal traps are far more recent. Aquamesh, the provider of the majority of trap metal, was developed by Gloucester, Mass. fisherman James Knott Sr. in the late 1970s. He patented it and put it into production in 1980.

The wire is welded, then galvanized, then coated in polyvinyl chloride. Tough stuff indeed. These traps rely on a few bricks to provide ballast to keep them anchored to the bottom. The old buoyant wooden ones needed concrete or metal ballast.

Lobstering is one of the few fisheries where the gear sits and waits without attendance of a boat, unlike floating and towed net fisheries and baited line fisheries. Unattended gear is subject to wave motion and currents and has the risk of losing surface connections. Indeed that is one of the risks of the newly proposed ropeless gear fishery, which could result in more derelict traps, ghost traps.

Clean-up efforts are indeed under the radar. Ghost traps are the ones which have lost their buoy ropes from the buoys being cut off or a knot coming undone. And there are a lot, maybe a million or more; about 10% of the traps used each season are lost.

Today’s traps have doors that deteriorate to keep them from fishing. But they move around and get tangled in huge balls of fishing gear as the sea pushes them around.

There is one effort underway, Buzz Scott’s OceansWide, which uses divers and sonar and plans to use remote underwater vehicles to locate ghost traps. In a test in Boothbay Harbor in 2021-22, some 2,000 traps were retrieved using two boats. Scott has established a not-for-profit to continue this project.

Shoreside cleanups are principally led by land trusts cleaning the land for which they are responsible. Landowners also clean up their shores. These need volunteer gangs to cut ballast bricks from traps and pile them to be crushed, if the equipment is available, or removed whole. They need trucks and trap trailers to take them miles to the only recycling center in Maine.

Lots of organization is needed to gather the volunteers and the transportation. Funds for the out-of-pocket costs need to be raised. And permission needs to be obtained from the Department of Marine Resources. Maine regulations prohibit anyone except the owner from touching fishing gear, so all those buoys hanging up as decoration are illegal.

Two things can be done to make cleaning up derelict gear easier.

First is a regulation change that allows people to clean up derelict gear without penalty. If someone is out in a skiff along the shore and spots a pile of lobster rope, some beat up buoys in a tree, or a trap that has come ashore, there should be no penalty for loading that gear in their boat and taking it to the dump.

Second is providing some clean-up resources. Currently the fishing industry may be the only one in the state that isn’t responsible for cleaning up its trash. Maine citizens and industries pay dump fees and some pay haulers to take their trash to the dump. The ocean is not a dump, neither are the ocean shores.

How could this happen? McCarron figures there are 4,700 lobstermen, of whom 3,000 are active. Currently, the law allows each fisherman to have 800 traps; these need to be tagged annually at the cost of 75 cents per trap. Those fees go to the Lobster Management Fund of the DMR which supports lobster fishery research, licensing management, and regulation enforcement.

If you added a nickel to the tag fee or take one from the current fee, you’d get $40 for 800, or half the cost of a tank of truck gas. If there are 3,000 who have 500 tags each, that’s $75,000.

If those funds were targeted toward cleaning up shoreside debris, finding and removing ghost traps, or going after giant rolling balls of derelict gear, it would sure help. It would help buy gas for boats and trucks, rent construction dumpsters, and pay dump fees. More importantly it would be a start on helping the industry clean up its waste.
Other businesses and individuals pay to dispose of their waste. Why not fishing? Perhaps it is time to make this a bit more visible.

Ben Fuller is curator emeritus at the Penobscot Marine Museum, a registered Maine Guide, a regular contributor to WoodenBoat and other publications, and long-time volunteer for shoreside and roadside cleanups.