Fishermen have been working the waters of Massachusetts Bay since long before the states united. One of the early maps of the area, dated to 1616 and credited to Captain John Smith, depicts a sailing vessel over today’s Stellwagen Bank sanctuary. Nineteen years later, the map was amended to include a pyramid of cod heads as a sign of good fishing. Some academics theorize that this abundance helped the first European settlers survive.
For nearly 400 years now, fishermen have been exploiting these resources. Local knowledge and understanding of the area and its seasonal cycles have increased as time’s gone by, but fishing methods remain unchanged. At its core, the process consists of a group of men (mostly) lowering nets, hooked lines, or traps where they think the fish should be. Sometimes they’ll come up with a full clutch, other times nothing at all, and sometimes their nets will simply vanish.
There are loads of reasons that ghost gear plagues local waters. One common scenario involves a fisherman losing equipment that settles on the bottom and becomes artificial habitat for fish, which are always looking for shelter. Now he has a problem: Fish could be hiding next to his lost gear, but that sea junk makes it riskier to fish there — he could lose more gear. (This is the commercial version of getting your hooked worm caught on a submerged log and having to cut the line.) But since he wants to make more money, he comes back and catches more fish at the spot. Eventually he’s going to lose still more equipment. And so it goes, until you have a giant knot of gear on the bottom.
Barges are another problem: While being pulled into port, the boats can snap the lines running from buoys to lobster traps, leaving entire trawls stranded on the ocean floor. And finally, there’s the age-old issue of dumping. While most fishermen aren’t trying to lose gear — a single trawl of lobster pots can cost its owner a few hundred to a few thousand dollars to replace, depending on the size — many of them used to simply throw their torn nets and busted lobster pots back into the water. A good number of the commercial fishing ports around here have generations-old gear graveyards near their mouths. Determining the scope of the problem is difficult, because hard data is elusive. Fishermen aren’t required to report lost gear, and few of them do.
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries maintains a record of catastrophic loss of commercial gear, but in the past four years, there have been only four reported losses. However, preliminary results of a new survey conducted by the MDMF suggest a 4.5 percent annual loss rate for lobster gear. Given that Massachusetts has about 320,000 actively fished commercial lobster traps, that means roughly 14,000 traps go missing each year. The annual cost just to buy replacement traps runs about $1.4 million — and that doesn’t account for the untold lost man hours spent searching for the gear or getting replacement trawls up and running.
Loss rates get fuzzier when it comes to nets. In its 2008 book Tackling Marine Debris in the 21st Century, the nonprofit National Research Council writes that “anecdotal evidence suggests that, in some fisheries, 30 kilometers of net are lost or discarded during a typical 45-day trip, which translates into 1,254 kilometers of lost or discarded netting per year.” That’s about 800 miles’ worth — enough to stretch from Boston to Detroit — every year, and that’s just for one fishery.
The problem has been exacerbated by modern materials. Beginning in the 1970s, fishermen transitioned from cotton nets to plastic ones, while wooden lobster pots were traded in for vinyl-coated steel. There was also the introduction of monofilament fishing line, which the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution — an international leader in oceanic research that’s located on the Cape — says can remain intact for 600 years. These advances were meant to increase the profits of fishermen. But because lost gear now lasts much longer, the improvements are instead threatening the very sustainability of the industry.