Lobstermen Find More than Lobsters in a Trap

First published in Landings, October, 2016

This time of year lobstermen haul their traps with the expectation (or at least hope) that each trap will be full of lobsters. But sometimes, they find a surprise in the trap, whether it’s a tiny sea spider with long spindly legs or a $10 bill. Unusual finds such as sea horse and blue crabs became more common in 2012, when waters were warmer than usual.

Squid egg nest or “mop.”  NOAA photo.

Squid egg nest or “mop.”
NOAA photo.

This year has seen its share of interesting finds. A lobsterman fishing out of the Rockland area reported finding weird blobs of jelly in his traps earlier this year. The blobs turned out to be sea salps, a barrel-shaped tunicate that filter-feeds on microorganisms. Salps are community-forming animals, meaning they attach to one another in order to move together. Salps can form long chains which look like a gelatinous barrel, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) website. Mike Ford, a biological oceanographer who works with the NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service, said the strangle-looking salps can significantly alter the marine ecosystem. “History and experience have told us that when these animals get to a high enough density, they can shift the ecosystem,” Ford said in an October 2014 article published on NOAA’s website.

The Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay reports that this has been a typical year in terms of unusual sea creatures. “We haven’t really seen more of anything come in this year compared to previous years,” said Elaine Jones, marine education director at the Maine State Aquarium in Boothbay Harbor. “We typically see salps around the docks in the fall. Squid are fairly common as well.”

Sea horse photographed by lobsterman Chris Welch.

Sea horse photographed by lobsterman Chris Welch.

Jones said the Aquarium regularly gets calls from lobstermen with colored lobsters, but those hardly seem rare any more. The Aquarium has various colored lobsters on display each year; this year, they also have a squat lobster, a relative of the hermit crab and not a true lobster, caught by a local lobsterman this spring.

Stonington lobsterman Genevieve McDonald pulled up a squid nest in her trap a few months ago. A squid nest is a collection of millions of squid eggs in configurations that look like the head of a dishmop. “Squid and squid mops [nests] are pretty common in shallow waters,” commented Jones. “You can often see the mops along the bottom when the tide goes out.”

McDonald also gets nudibranchs, skeleton shrimp, and sometimes whelk cases and anemones, too. “Snarling ghost gear usually turns up some interesting sea life,” she said drily.

Another interesting creature spotted this year is the clawed sea spider. Sea spiders have small bodies with four pairs of legs that can span up to 20 inches. The clawed sea spider is a common species north of Cape Cod, but is so small it can be hard to spot. Not much is known about sea spiders, but they are often found among hydroids, which could be their main food source.

Jones said it’s not uncommon to spot trigger fish around lobster traps in the Gulf of Maine during hot summers. “We usually see three to four show up during warmer summers. We’ve only heard of one being caught this summer, in Harpswell.” Grey triggerfish live primarily in the western Atlantic Ocean, ranging from Nova Scotia to the Caribbean Sea and as far south as Argentina.

Then there’s the black sea bass. What once was a rarely-seen fish in the Gulf of Maine is now turning up frequently in Maine lobstermen’s traps. Until 2010, very few of these southern New England fish ventured into Maine’s cold waters. During the last six years, however, the fish have been seen frequently in lobster traps in southern Maine as well as caught by recreational fishermen. In response, the Department of Marine Resources instituted regulations for the commercial harvest of black sea bass in 2014, recognizing that what once had been a rare fish was quickly becoming common.

A more common but very strange-looking creature is the orange-footed cucumber. This brown blob has five rows of tube feet (the same type of feet as a sea star) running along its body and extends bushy tentacles from one end to filter feed. A fishery in Maine began in earnest in 1994 with the sudden development of markets for the creature in foreign countries. Today it is a very limited, closed-access drag fishery with ten boats licensed in 2012. About 4.3 million pounds were landed during 2008, the last year for which data are available, with a landed value of about $707,000. You have to be careful with sea cucumbers, though: their main form of self-defense is to expel their innards.

So keep your eyes open – who knows what you might find next in your traps!