Net Loss

How decades' worth of lost gear is jeopardizing the Massachusetts fishing industry.

Also contributing to the problem is the fact that even if fishermen like Mirarchi do haul in ghost gear, it’s technically illegal for them to bring it ashore and dispose of it — a law originally meant to prevent people from swiping lobster pots for their Cape Cod coffee tables. To comply with state laws, fishermen have to either radio the Environmental Police or pitch the stuff back overboard — which for years is exactly what they did.

And that gets at part of the reason that lobstermen, in particular, are set on edge by any talk of gear cleanup. Some doubt the dangers posed by lost equipment — they say it becomes habitat — but many are looking out for their public image, which they fear skews more toward raiders of the sea than hardworking guys trying to make a living. “There is already an existing public perception of commercial fishermen, that we burn, pillage, plunder, and rape the ocean,” Dave Casoni, a longtime fisherman and member of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, said at a recent conference on derelict fishing gear held in Portland, Maine. “We could also be accused of now trashing the ocean. That’s what we’re afraid of, that all of a sudden something will be done to us because of what’s already there.”

He’s talking about money, and he has a point. When new regulations to protect the critically endangered right whale came online in 2007, for example, fishermen had to pay to replace all their rope with non-floating line and install breakaway mechanisms that release when they entangle a whale. Lobstermen say these whale regulations are now one of the top three reasons for
gear loss.

Rather than pointing fingers, though, most people pushing cleanup efforts are looking for solutions. Until scientists devise methods to track equipment loss, no one will know for sure how much slips away each year or what tonnage of fish it’s responsible for killing. It’s true that the extent of the ghost-gear problem is unknown, but one startling fact puts the whole thing in perspective: More derelict nets, pots, and other gear are sitting on the bottom of the ocean than are being actively fished at any given time.

FED UP WITH LOSING gear and reeling in other people’s junk, Mirarchi contacted Cowie-Haskell of the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary in 2007. Mirarchi wanted to pitch a plan for a project to start removing the junk, and it turned out that Cowie-Haskell didn’t need much convincing. Like the rest of the sanctuary staff, the assistant superintendent is charged with managing ship traffic. In that role, he’d already spent several days 80 feet underwater the previous summer, getting a firsthand education on the outsize frustrations and challenges of gear removal. He and a team of divers had gone to the bow of the sunken schooner Paul Palmer, which went down after catching fire in 1913. Over the years, lost nets had formed a tight cocoon around part of the ship. For 20 minutes at a time, Cowie-Haskell would grab a handful of cotton net, pull until it went taut, then cut. When a piece came off, he’d attach it to a float bag and send it toward the light. It took two days of painstaking work to finish the job, and only a couple of nets had been removed.

Mirarchi told Cowie-Haskell that what he really wanted to do was target bigger tangles of ghost nets — the monster gear balls that he and other fishermen went out of their way to avoid. So they set out on the Barbara L. Peters, Mirarchi’s boat, and headed for a big pile of underwater traps that Mirarchi knew about. For five hours they worked the grappling hook, fishing for trash. Most of the time, when they went to winch their catches up, the underwater ropes snapped like old rubber bands. By day’s end, they’d spent about $1,000 to operate the boat — and collected a grand total of four lobster pots and a few hundred feet of rope with frayed ends. In a photo taken on the ship’s deck that afternoon, both Mirarchi and Cowie-Haskell look decidedly nonplussed.


Illustration by Liz Noftle