South Portland lobsterman Stuart Jones tosses a smashed trap into a dumpster on the Portland Fish Pier on Tuesday April 13, 2021 during the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation's two-day gear grab. The event provided fishermen with a free and proper way to dispose of used-up gear. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — Fishermen filled two huge dumpsters with smashed lobster traps, rotted wooden trap runners, miles of worn out line and other unwanted gear this week on the Portland Fish Pier. The wire traps will be recycled and most burnable materials are bound for local trash-to-energy incinerators.

The two-day “gear grab” held on Tuesday and Wednesday was organized by the non-profit Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. Getting rid of bulky fishing gear can be an expensive problem for fishermen. It costs money to dispose of it at local transfer stations.

Often, used-up nets and traps accumulate on docks and in dooryards. Fishermen can also be tempted to dump old gear at sea.

The event was designed to avoid both scenarios.

“People think fishermen don’t care about the ocean but we do,” said Stuart Jones, a South Portland lobsterman who fishes 800 traps on Casco Bay. “This is where we live.”

Jones tossed six beat up traps into one of the commercial dumpsters on Tuesday morning. He also left a pile of pressure-treated trap runners.

From left (clockwise): Dan Train heaves old traps from his boat at the Portland Fish Pier during a gear grab event on Tuesday April 13, 2021; Lobsterman Curt Brown helps stack unwanted traps on the Portland Fish Pier during a gear grab event on Tuesday April 13, 2021; Hattie Train (left) and lobsterman Curt Brown heft old traps into a dumpster on the Portland Fish Pier during a gear grab event on Tuesday April 13, 2021. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

Taking care of old gear is one of the 20-year-old Lobster Foundation’s main projects. In addition to hosting a few “gear grabs” per year, it also sponsors shoreline cleanups and ghost gear removal.

Ghost gear is derelict fishing equipment lost on the ocean floor. It usually ends up there when net and trap lines are severed by boat traffic and storms. But it can also be abandoned there.

Eventually, ghost gear accumulates into large balls, roaming the depths like tumbleweeds, taking out more gear and getting bigger as it goes. Sometimes they even become navigational hazards.

Most modern fishing gear is made of non-biodegradable, plastic-based material. Anything that goes into the water will stay there unless removed, becoming an environmental problem, as well.

To get rid of ghost gear in the water, the Lobster Foundation organizes fishermen to troll with special grappling hooks, snagging lost equipment. It also has plans to search for troublesome gear balls using sophisticated side scan sonar this summer.

According to the Lobster Foundation, an estimated 175,000 lobster traps are lost in the Gulf of Maine every year, in one way or another.

“We don’t have mandatory loss reporting in Maine but some people say it’s more like 300,000,” said Executive Director Erin Pelletier. “It happens. They lose stuff.”

At about $80 for a new trap, that equals millions of dollars in lost equipment and lost income.

Pelletier doesn’t think a significant number of lost traps get dumped intentionally because fishermen know how bad it can be for the environment, as well as their own livelihoods.

“There’s such a bad rap on these guys,” she said.

But, just in case the temptation is there, Pelletier said the gear grab is an opportunity for them to “do the right thing.”

The Lobster Foundation hopes to host another gear grab later in the year, in either Portland or Rockland. Pelletier estimated the total cost of transporting and recycling this week’s haul to be around $2,000. It will be paid for by grants.

Curt Brown, a Cape Elizabeth lobsterman who fishes 500 traps, dropped off about 25 broken ones on Tuesday. Brown said he was grateful for the opportunity to get rid of them for free.

“Otherwise they’d just be piling up in the trap yard,” Brown said, “collecting rust.”

He said he didn’t personally know of anyone who would dump old gear overboard.

“But the less that ends up in the water, the better,” Brown said, “and this is a good opportunity to make sure old traps end up in the right place.”

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.