A lobsterman’s thoughts on gear retrieval

First published in the MLA newsletter, May,  2010.

I have to admit that when I first heard about the ghost gear retrieval project, I was not very impressed by the idea. It seemed like another example of the government doing things backwards. It was quite a contradiction, I thought. The same year we were being required to switch to sinking groundlines, which is creating record numbers of gear on the bottom that will never see the light of day again, they were worried about reducing the amount of ghost gear in the water? It seemed to make about as much sense as tucking in your oil pants into your boots, then complaining that your feet are wet.

I figured that if there was money for a project, it could be better spent on helping lobstermen purchase more of the new “whale rope” or even trying to fight the law itself. I was also very skeptical of how they intended to retrieve the traps. Using divers would be expensive and not very practical. Towing the bottom with a grapel seemed like it would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and both methods would only be effective in relatively shallow water. The whole project left me shaking my head and I didn’t give it much more thought until a phone call I received this spring. It was Laura Ludwig who is the Project Manager for the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GOMLF).

GOMLF was formed in 2000 to help improve and develop relationships between scientists, fishermen and others who are involved in managing the industry. The most successful and well-known was the Bottom Line Project, which allows fishermen to trade in their old floating rope and receive vouches toward the purchase of sinking groundlines. Laura had called me regarding another issue, but she suggested that I fill out an application for the ghost gear recovery. Before I could catch my breath to let her know my opinion on the project, she started to explain it with more detail.

I had formed my opinion from a 30-second sound byte on the news. But Laura explained that the $200,000 in funding had come from a grant by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The grant’s intent was to help restore marine habitat in the Gulf of Maine. The money ultimately came from a settlement from a long-running lawsuit involving a large oil company and the dumping of oil in the Gulf of Maine. There wasn’t a penny of taxpayer money spent on the project after all. She also mentioned that there would be a $500 per day fuel stipend for participating boats. I decided it wouldn’t hurt to take a few days away from chasing $4 lobsters in early April and do my part to restore marine habitat, not to mention the possibility of retrieving a few decent traps that had been lost; they aren’t exactly giving those things away these days.

On the morning of April 6, I headed out from my homeport of Islesford armed with 300 feet of 7/16 line, a grapel, and two peanut butter sandwiches in my dinnerpail. My sternman James Hardison had come along to give me a hand and our expectations for the day were high. We were supposed to tow for at least six hours. After that, we would bring whatever we had fished up to the town pier in Manset on Mount Desert Island. From there, the traps would be sorted with reusable ones being tagged and delivered to Bar Harbor. Owners of the resusable traps would be contacted and given a week to get them. The junkers would be cut up and hauled off in dumpsters, eventually making it to a waste-to-energy plant.

The first hour started out relatively uneventful, with only a couple of old wrecks in the first six tows. But by mid-morning, I was getting the hand of it. I figured out a good ratio of rope to depth of water, which would allow the grapel to stay on the bottom. Another Islesford lobsterman, Bruce Fernald, was also towing on his boat, the Barbara Ann. We chatted on the VHF radio about where we were doing well and what methods worked best, something that would be unthinkable if we had been fishing for lobsters.

Removing ghost gear is good for lobstermen as well as undersea habitat. MLA photo.

By noon, I had eaten both my sandwiches and we had about 40 traps on board. Because the condition of the gear was so poor, stacking them neatly was futile. The deck on which I usually stack over 80 four-foot traps was a mess of rusty wire and old rope. We decided to call it a day and headed for Manset, spraying barnacles and mud out of the scuppers as we went. The next day, we were back at it. Although we brought in a handful fewer traps, the gear seemed to be in better condition. When we arrived in Manset the second day, a few local lobstermen met us at the dock, anxious to see if any of their gear had been recovered.

As I headed back to Islesford on Wednesday afternoon with an empty boat and the fuel stipend in my back pocket, I re-evaluated the project. One thing that I noticed was that about 90% of the traps I brought aboard had open escape vents. That is a great way for us to prove that we have a system in place that really works. I’m sure that there is some environmentalist or government employee somewhere scheming up another law to modify our gear even more. Now we have a little bit of data on our side for once.

Gear retrieval projects were in Zones A, B and C this year. Next year, the remainder of the grant will be used for the remaining four zones. At the time of press, there were no totals for the number of traps retrieved, but it is estimated that over 530 were recovered in the Mount Desert Island area alone!

I would encourage other lobstermen to approach this project with an open mind and apply for next year. It breaks up the grind of spring fishing and you can sleep well at night knowing you helped restore the marine habitat that is our bread and butter.

Richard Howland is a lobsterman from Islesford, and is also the town’s constable. He still hates “whale rope” and writes for this month’s MLA Newsletter through the Will Write For Gear program.