March 15, 2011

Lobstermen troll for ghost traps, other lost gear

A bit of spring cleaning

By Beth Quimby
Staff Writer

PORTLAND HARBOR -- This time of year, Tom Martin normally takes his lobster boat, the Lucky Catch, 10 miles off the coast to tend to his traps.

On Monday, he spent the day fishing for "ghost" lobster gear off Fish Point in Portland Harbor with sternmen Brian Rapp and Dave Laliberte.

The Lucky Catch is part of a 10-lobster-boat fleet that is hauling lost gear from Casco Bay. The two-day effort continues today.

Lobstermen are glad to participate because ghost gear gets in their way when they set their traps, and hinders draggers as they scour the ocean floor for seafood.

"If we could do this every five or 10 years it would be great," said Martin.

The cleanup is being directed by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation with help from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The project is funded with a $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which was responsible for distributing $1.9 million to Maine and several other states from a $37 million fine paid by the Overseas Shipholding Group. The group was fined four years ago for dumping waste oil in the ocean off Maine, California, Texas and other coastal states.

The lobstermen who agree to participate receive stipends -- about enough to cover their fuel costs. "It is not a money-making proposition," said Laura Ludwig, the project manager, from the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.

This is the second year of the project. Last year, 30 lobstermen combed the waters from Lubec to Cape Rosier in Brooksville for six days and retrieved 1,130 traps.

Most traps are metal, but some fishermen still build their own with wood, which decompose. New lobster traps cost $45 to $75 each.

About half of the traps that were retrieved last year were salvageable. Half of them were returned to their owners. Those that went unclaimed were stored for six months and then auctioned off.

The traps that were too bent and broken to be salvaged were recycled. The oldest trap that was retrieved had been lost around 1992.

There is plenty of cleaning up to do off Maine's coast. Last year alone, the state issued about 70,000 replacement tags for lost lobster traps, said Ludwig.

Lobstermen are scheduled to retrieve gear from the remaining sections of the coast in April. There also will be a repeat run around Mount Desert Island, thanks to a $6,500 contribution from The Northeast Harbor Fleet, the New York Yacht Club and two other yacht clubs.

Sailboat racers sometimes get entangled in lobster gear during regattas and cut the gear loose. The yacht clubs wanted to compensate the lobstermen, said Ludwig.

The project also involves research, to assess the impact of lost gear. Ludwig said researchers are trying to answer such questions as whether lost traps become a safe haven for lobsters and other ocean creatures, how much lost gear is out there, and whether lost traps' biodegradable escape vents actually decompose and let lobsters out.

When fishing gear is lost, is doesn't stay put on the ocean floor. "During storms, there can be tumbleweeds of this stuff rolling around the bottom," said Ludwig.

Along most of Maine's coast, lobstermen set a single trap for each buoy. In Casco Bay, which has heavy commercial and recreational boat traffic, lobstermen are allowed to set a string of traps marked by a buoy at each end. In the summer, Martin said, the bottom of the harbor is essentially wall-to-wall traps.

To find lost gear, lobstermen use their experience and knowledge. Sonar isn't effective because it picks up any irregularities, including rocks.

On Monday, Martin and his crew knew just where to go: an area known as anchorage A, where large ships are often anchored, a veritable Bermuda Triangle for lobster gear.

(Continued on page 2)

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