BAR HARBOR, Maine — There might be more than one fish in the sea, but apparently there’s a lot more in the sea than just fish.
On Wednesday, that reality was plain to see as dozens of lobster traps that had been lost in Frenchman Bay piled up on the town’s municipal pier. A handful of fishermen from the Mount Desert Island area had been out Tuesday and Wednesday dragging hooks in the water to recover lost traps as part of a trap recovery program being conducted by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.
Some of the traps looked almost brand-new, others were nearly crusted over with barnacles, and a few had lobster buoys inside them, placed there by other fishermen who cut the traps on purpose and didn’t want the buoys to be found. Some traps were so twisted and bent out of shape that they were thrown straight into a Dumpster on the pier to be recycled as scrap metal.
Laura Ludwig, project manager from GOMLF, estimated Wednesday that a total of 400 traps were recovered during the two-day effort around MDI. Last week, a similar number were recovered off Jonesport. Next week, the group plans to spend two days dragging for traps off Stonington, she said.
Ludwig said the foundation would try to contact trap owners from license numbers on the Department of Marine Resources tags found on the traps. The ones recovered around MDI that are good enough to keep will remain on the Bar Harbor Town Pier for owner pickup through next Wednesday. Any usable traps not claimed by then will be taken to Rockland for storage; if the owners do not claim them within six months, DMR will auction them off, she said.
Besides reuniting lost gear with fishermen, one main purpose of the trap recovery project is to give lobster industry officials and regulators a better sense of what effects the lost traps — referred to as “ghost gear” by fishermen — may have on the ocean environment.
“This has never been done in Maine before,” Ludwig said of the recovery effort. “It should be enough [of an effort] to say, ‘We should do more’ or, ‘We should not do more.’”
By recovering lost traps, fishermen and regulators can get a better sense of how long the traps might remain intact, how effective time-release escape hatches are, and what other kinds of effects they might have on the ocean bottom and on lobster mortality, according to Ludwig.
One thing they will not be able to do is use the number of recovered traps to estimate how much ghost gear might be out there, Ludwig said.
Because the state DMR issues more than 3 million trap tags each year, and because each fisherman is allowed to get replacement tags for up to 10 percent of the number of traps they are allowed to fish, it could be estimated that hundreds of thousands of traps are lost each year below the waves.
But, according to lobster industry officials, those numbers do not reflect how many traps fishermen actually set in the water or how many traps fishermen recover on their own outside the GOMLF program. Because traps can cost about $100 apiece, and because lost traps may have marketable lobster in them, many fishermen try to recover them if they think they can.
No one really knows how many ghost traps may be out there, according to Ludwig. Last year, state officials had applied for $2.3 million in federal funds to conduct a larger program along the same lines, but did not receive the money.
The GOMLF program, funded by a $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, will continue in 2011 with similar two-day efforts in a few ports farther west along the coast, she said, but that is not expected to provide enough of a sampling to come up with a likely estimate for the amount of lost gear in the sea.
Local lobsterman Donnie Parsons said Wednesday that one direct benefit he has received from the recovery program is getting back four traps he had lost. Local fishermen wanted the recovery effort to target the western side of Egg Rock in Frenchman Bay because that’s where they lose traps primarily to cruise ships in the fall, he said.
“It’s good fishing in that area,” Parsons said. “If [the cruise ships] get off course, it’s bad news.”
Roy Whalen of Sullivan, one of the fishermen who helped drag for lost traps in Frenchman Bay, said the fishing off Egg Rock is too good to avoid.
“You have to fish it and take your chances,” Whalen said. “We got a lot of trash out of the water [the past two days], which is good.”
Parsons said that environmentally it’s good to recover the lost gear, but there are far more plastic bottles in the ocean than any other type of trash. He said that if the funding were available there should be similar trap recovery efforts every few years.
“I think it’s an excellent program,” he said. “The ocean ain’t a dump.”