Plastic debris in Gulf of Maine cause of concern

First published in Landings, May, 2015.

Marine debris, particularly in the form of plastic waste, is a worldwide problem that kills and injures millions of seabirds, mammals and fish annually, fouls boat propellers, can block cooling water intakes on vessels, and causes an unsightly mess where it accumulates.

Despite international agreements banning disposal of plastics at sea, the amount of plastic debris continues to increase, according to international observers. Maine lobstermen routinely haul plastic up in their traps and find it floating on the surface or in the water column.

Lobstermen take notice

Approximately 15,000 pounds of used rope was collected from Hancock County fishermen this spring. Photo by L. Ludwig.

Approximately 15,000 pounds of used rope was collected from Hancock County fishermen this spring. Photo by L. Ludwig.

Some lobstermen are concerned not only about the plastics they encounter while fishing, but about the plastics some fishermen may be putting into the ocean. “If you put it on your boat, you should bring it in,” said David Cousens, president of the Maine Lobstermen’s Association (MLA). Cousens said the primary plastic items he picks up while fishing are Solo cups and styrofoam coffee cups, but he also finds the plastic wrappers for frozen bait, yogurt cups and plastic soda bottles.

“If I see something, I pick it up and bring it in. Most of us do,” said Cousens. “But I will also see people out there tossing their cups and whatever into the water. The ocean’s not a dump. You’d think people who rely on it for a living would know that.”

Another long-time lobsterman who fishes offshore and asked not to be identified said he is shocked by the amount of plastic he sees moving around between 18 and 40 miles offshore. “Mostly it’s plastic like strapping bands and bags due to the increased use of frozen bait that comes from all over the world, such as from New Zealand and Vietnam, tuna heads, pogies, rockfish,” he said. “It’s everywhere. I pick it up and bring it in when I can. I hate to see it floating in the water like that. The bags have the same consistency as medium trash bags, so they resemble jellyfish and we don’t want the turtles trying to eat them.”

His point is supported by statistics from the Ocean Conservancy (OC), sponsors of the annual International Coastal Cleanup, which asks volunteers to record specific items picked up on beaches on a designated day. OC’s data shows 100,000 marine animals die annually from plastic entanglement or ingestion, and those are only the ones found. Also, at least 1 million birds die from plastics. Because of its nearly infinite life, plastics can continue to kill birds and animals. When an animal dies and decomposes as a result of ingesting a plastic bag, the bag is released and may be ingested by another.

“Most of the coops do take the bait out of the wrappings, but all of them should. I bring in all my plastic trash. It doesn’t take up much room,” the lobsterman added. “All the waste from one trip will fit in a 5-gallon bucket.”

Fishing off Long Island in Casco Bay, Steve Train said he doesn’t see that much plastic trash, but what he sees, he brings back to shore. He believes there’s been a slight improvement over 30 years, that people aren’t throwing as much stuff over the side. “I usually see [plastic trash] on the spring tides,” he said.

But Train agrees that the trash created by the increase in the use of frozen bait could be controlled if the bait was always unpacked before it went aboard the vessel. And he does see a few fishermen tossing stuff into the sea, “a small minority.” “If it’s a problem, it shouldn’t be loaded aboard the boat in the first place,” said Train. “It would be good if all the co-ops and dealers unpacked it.”

Tom Armbrecht, business manager of the Spruce Head Fishermen’s Co-op, said every box of frozen bait sold to one of the co-op’s members is first taken out of the box, then the plastic bands and the plastic wrap are removed and put into a dumpster on the site. “We don’t allow any of the cardboard or plastic from the bait to go aboard our boats.”

“I would like to see it controlled at the distribution end,” Armbrecht said. “Say we can’t sell frozen bait to lobstermen in its original package, require it to be unpacked. We all have plastic totes. Put one on board and put all the plastic trash in it. Bring it in. Our guys do.”

“It’s a primary concern for me and our board,” he added. “If we eliminate the problem at the source, I think it’s an easier way to control it. I see lobster boats [not from the co-op] going out with the bait in boxes, but I don’t see the materials coming back.”

“We would love to recycle it all, but we don’t have the space to separate it all out right now,” said Armbrecht.

While some fishermen say “there oughta be a law,” others know there already is. The international agreement called MARPOL Annex V banned the disposal of plastics anywhere in the ocean. Some other forms of biodegradable debris, such as paper, wood or metal, may be tossed within certain distances of land as spelled out in the agreement, but all plastic disposal is banned everywhere in the marine environment.

The agreement was originally created by combining two treaties adopted in 1973 and 1978. Annex V (Prevention of Pollution by Garbage from Ships) entered into force in late 1988. The MARPOL agreement has been signed by 152 countries, representing 99.2 per cent of the world’s shipping tonnage.

Despite this, surveys based on more than 680 surface net tows and nearly 900 visual surveys of the world’s oceans estimate more than 5 trillion plastic particles are floating in the earth’s oceans. Scientists at the University of Georgia and the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS) at the University of California recently released results of a study that estimates at least 9 million metric tons of plastic enter the marine environment annually; that figure could increase by ten-fold in 10 years without prompt action.

Some of the largest numbers of land-based plastic trash items are plastic shopping bags — the single biggest item spotted at sea by sailors around the world. Some countries have banned their use, such as Bangladesh, where plastic bags clogged drains during flooding caused by tsunamis in 1988 and 1998. Other places try to reduce their use by charging customers for them. The city of Portland, Maine, recently passed an ordinance requiring a 5 cent charge for plastic bags. Provincetown, Mass., banned plastic bags altogether in April after a two-year effort.

Theresa Torrent is the State Coordinator for International Coastal Cleanup and Coastweek for the Maine Coastal Program (MCP). The MCP has been working with the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) and the lobster industry to create awareness of the marine debris issue.
“We started with styrofoam cups. We encourage people on the water to bring reusable cups out with them,” said Torrent. “This led to a much larger effort to reduce all single-use plastics. We are trying to get observations from fishermen. Their observations combined with our cleanup data help us focus on local issues. When they bring us a point of concern, we try to act on it. For instance, we didn’t know balloons were an issue in the marine environment here, especially from mass balloon releases, until fishermen told us they were.”

“No marine debris for ME.” 

MCP’s focus for this year is represented by the slogan: No marine debris for ME. “We want to do as much as we can to keep plastic out of the marine environment,” said Torrent. “We are now looking at a five to six year focus on marine debris, including microplastics.”

Microplastics are the tiny pieces of plastic that result from the eventual breakup of plastic items – hard to see and find, but still causing damage to fish and wildlife. “It’s difficult to imagine the scope of the plastics problem since plastics have only been around for a little more than 50 years,” said Torrent. “Marine debris is a worldwide waste management issue.”

An Orly Granger work called Terra, installed in Oklahoma City last fall. Photo courtesy of O. Granger.

An Orly Granger work called Terra, installed in Oklahoma City last fall. Photo courtesy of O. Granger.

Some marine debris is created inadvertently when lines chafe and break, meaning lobster traps are lost. Fishermen report losing more gear since sinking lines were mandated by the federal government to try to protect endangered whales from entanglement. The problem of lost rope and “ghost traps” that continue fishing is a continuing problem. When grants allowed for a rope buyback to help lobstermen replace floating lines with sinking lines, the old rope proved hard to recycle. Some goes to trash-to-energy plants, but it must be cut up first, an expensive process. Fortunately, the availability of used rope has led to the establishment of several new companies, such as Cape Porpoise Trading, which use recycled rope to create door mats and other craft items.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program has a program called Fishing for Energy, a partnership with Covina Energy Corporation, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel Industries. The project has collection bins at 37 ports in nine states, but while they have collected more than 1.98 million pounds of fishing gear altogether, the Maine sites in Portland and Kennebunk are not very active, say industry observers.

The mother of invention?

Where there’s an issue, there’s often a surprising, if partial, solution. Laura Ludwig was the original coordinator of the floating rope buyback program for Maine. She’s found a unique way to continue to recycle rope. This time she’s buying sinking rope, which breaks more easily, and the project is privately, not federally, funded. Since 2012 Ludwig has been buying the used rope for artist Orly Granger of New York City.

“This is all privately funded through the artist. She buys the rope from the fishermen, through me,” explained Ludwig. Granger produces huge installations by hand-knotting the rope and painting it with colorful latex paints. Her installations have appeared in parks and museums around the country. One of Granger’s permanent rope installations is in South Korea. A single sculpture might contain 180,000 pounds of rope, said Ludwig. “She has never thrown away any rope and her sculptures will last forever.”

Ludwig has procured more than 147,062 pounds of rope for the most recent project, and probably another 180,000 pounds for previous installations. “I have worked with maybe 100 fishermen. When I find rope that’s too small or not the right type, I refer it to a couple of people who are making doormats out of it,” she said.

Ludwig said there’s a “direct correlation” between the mandate to use sinking line and an increase in lost gear. “The guys who bring in chafed breaking rope to sell have already lost traps and rope, that’s how they know they need to replace it,” she said.

The sinking line requirement “generates an enormous waste stream, first when they had to change and now because it’s twice as expensive as the rope they would prefer to use. It’s a real conundrum and a high-impact regulation.”