STONINGTON, Maine — Sometimes, what goes down must come up.
For the past two days in the waters off Stonington, at least 67 reusable lobster traps, and possibly twice that many, have been brought back to land after going missing beneath the waves.
They were retrieved Tuesday and Wednesday by a handful of area fishermen who grappled for them, dragging a set of hooks through the water in hopes of snagging on ropes attached to the traps, on behalf of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. Earlier this month, the foundation spent two days in Jonesport and then two days on Mount Desert Island working with local fishermen to recover lost traps, which fishermen refer to as “ghost gear.”
No one knows how many traps may be out there. The state hands out millions of trap tags to lobstermen each year, and allows them to replace up to 10 percent of those tags each year because of gear that goes missing. But fishermen say they often make an effort to recover their lost traps because of the value of the lobster that might be in them and the cost of replacing the gear, which can be more than $1,000 for a single multitrap trawl.
Laura Ludwig, the lobster foundation’s project director for the trap retrieval program, said Wednesday that Stonington area fishermen have been surprised at the relatively low number of traps they have recovered. In Jonesport and then on MDI, fishermen recovered about 400 traps during each two-day recovery effort. In Stonington, she said, the haul might not even be half that.
Many fishermen in the Stonington area fish one- or two-trap trawls, Ludwig said, which are more likely than larger trawls to vanish in storms or even in especially strong tides. In Frenchman Bay off MDI, many traps are separated from their surface buoys by large cruise ships that visit Bar Harbor, she said.
Ludwig said the major thrust of the program is not to determine how many traps might be out there, or even to recover a significant number of them. She said the most valuable thing officials are learning from the program is about how well required escape vents work — they are geared to open up over time to let any trapped creature get out — and what the logistical hurdles to a larger recovery effort might be.
Ludwig said the $200,000 project, which is expected to continue next spring in western Maine, has not been easy to get rolling. Because Maine law bars fishermen from touching any gear that is not their own, the foundation had to get permission from the state to recover the gear. Also, it has to find fishermen willing to help, dockside space for sorting recovered traps and trash bins that hold gear that cannot be reused.
“We just wanted to figure out how this would work,” Ludwig said. “This is a tiny little project, [but] we’re taking up a whole parking lot. You can’t do that on a bigger scale.”
She said the foundation has applied for similar amounts of grant money from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Marine Debris Program to conduct a more scientific grappling retrieval program and to locate lost gear by sonar.
Scott Oliver, a fisherman from Deer Isle, pulled up Wednesday afternoon to the Stonington Town Pier in his pickup truck and by a Dumpster found one of his traps that had gone missing.
Oliver said he was concerned that regulators might try to push fishermen to do more to recover their lost traps, which is not always an easy or predictable task. Nonetheless, he said he was glad to get his $65 trap back and to see that at least some ghost gear has been removed from local waters.
“It’s good to get them off bottom,” Oliver said. “This is a plus.”