ELLSWORTH, Maine — After the state tried and failed earlier this year to get funding for a program to recover lost lobster traps from the ocean floor, a nonprofit foundation is getting some money that should help get the initiative under way.
In April, the State Planning Office applied for $2.3 million in federal stimulus money to fund an effort to recover lost traps, often referred to as “ghost gear,” and to collect other data such as what effect the pileup of traps might have on the ocean environment and a sampling that might indicate how many loose traps are on the sea floor. The project would have provided a few days work to hundreds of fishermen who would have helped in the recovery effort.
But the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration decided not to fund the proposal. So the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation went to the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation to ask for help, and in return is receiving $200,000 to put toward the effort.
The money is part of $1.9 million coming to Maine from the $37 million in fines that Overseas Shipholding Group was ordered to pay in 2006 for repeatedly dumping waste oil into the ocean off Maine and other states on both the East and West coasts.
The $200,000 grant will not result in every lost trap being recovered and brought to shore for recycling or disposal, according to Laura Ludwig, project manager for GOMLF. But it is expected to result in thousands of traps being recovered and should help scientists and lobster fishery officials determine how extensive and pressing the issue of ghost gear might be.
“We didn’t get a lot of money,” Ludwig said Friday. “It’s kind of a pilot program.”
Project officials also hope to use the program to set up established methods for retrieving and disposing of such gear over the long term, Ludwig said.
No one has conducted a survey before to try to determine how many lost traps might be in the ocean, but it could be in the millions. Fishermen lose traps when they become separated from marking buoys that float on the surface, often because lines are cut by the propeller of a passing boat or when traps get stuck on the bottom and the buoy lines break off as fishermen try to haul them to the surface.
According to Ludwig, the issue of ghost gear likely will become a larger concern now that offshore fishermen are required to use sinking ground line on multi-trap trawls that are set. Sinking rope, which is believed to pose less of a hazard to diving whales, tends to get caught or to chafe more on rocky bottom, which can lead to the rope breaking.
“There is a lot more ghost gear than there was [a few years ago],” Ludwig told officers of of the Down East Lobstermen’s Association this past week when the DELA board met in Ellsworth. “My angle is to clean up the ocean.”
Because such gear loss is unavoidable, state officials permit fishermen to replace 10 percent of the trap registration tags they receive each year, which are limited to 800 per fisherman. At that tag replacement rate, and with Maine Department of Marine Resources annually issuing 3.2 million trap tags, it could be estimated that as many as 320,000 traps could go missing beneath the waves every year.
But fishermen recover some of their lost gear, even if they get replacement tags, state officials have said. The fishermen make the effort because they don’t want to lose the money that the traps and the lobster that might be in them represent.
According to the SPO application that was submitted to NOAA earlier this year, state officials have conservatively estimated that 160,000 traps were lost in 2007.
Ludwig said that, whatever the actual number might be, at some point it becomes an environmental concern because of the potential of the lost traps to continue catching lobster and others species and to otherwise alter the ocean bottom by piling up in large groups. Part of the goal of the project is not just to better estimate how many traps might be in the ocean, but to determine if they tend to aggregate in some places such as basins more than others, she said.
The plan for the $200,000 program, she said, is to spend two days retrieving traps in each of Maine’s seven lobster industry management zones. It has not been determined out of which harbor in each of the zones the program will operate.
Traps will be retrieved in the three easternmost zones in the state in early 2010, before lobster fishing season begins in earnest, she said. Retrieval efforts are expected to occur in the remaining zones in early 2011. Fishermen picked to participate in the program will be paid $500 a day for each of the two days that they put in.
How the gear will be recovered, Ludwig said, has not been determined, but GOMLF wants to work with fishermen to determine the best way. There isn’t enough funding to pursue using sonar, she said, but project officials are considering using dragging boats and maybe even the help of local divers.
Project officials hope to return usable traps to their owners and to repurpose gear that is too mangled or deteriorated. Metal will be recycled and anything that can’t likely will be incinerated to produce energy, Ludwig said.
According to Ludwig, officials hope the $200,000 will help attract more funding for additional lobster trap retrieval efforts. Not only will such programs help clean up the ocean floor, she said, but it will help provide work for fishermen during the slow part of the year.
“I want the money to go to the lobster industry,” she said.