Net Loss

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

By December 2008, they’d hatched a new, two-pronged plan. The first part involved a refined effort to haul gear from the ocean floor. The second part was an attempt to keep it from getting there in the first place. Mirarchi and Cowie-Haskell knew that one of the reasons fishing gear gets dumped into the sea is that fishermen are prohibited from bringing it to town transfer stations (it gums up incinerators). Add to that the fact that it’s prohibitively expensive for them to ship it to the distant facility that can process it, and you get old gear on the ocean floor. So Stellwagen Alive!, a nonprofit organization supporting the sanctuary, has placed dumpsters at ports in Scituate and Provincetown for the collection of old fishing equipment. A year later, the group teamed up with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and Covanta Energy, a private power company, to put dedicated dumpsters near the ports. To date, this trash-collection partnership, called Fishing for Energy, has brought in more than 685,000 pounds of fishing gear from 10 sites around Massachusetts. The trash was incinerated, producing enough energy to power 23 homes for a year.

In 2008, Stellwagen Alive! also organized an ocean cleanup effort under the banner Stellwagen Sweep, commissioning several captains and teams of volunteers to remove gear from the bottom. This time, rather than a powerful dragger like the Barbara L. Peters, they used lobster boats, which pull with more finesse and therefore break line less often. In its three sweeps to date, the group has collected 100,000 pounds of gear.

The victories, though, have been tempered by setbacks. In 2010, the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries placed 18 lobster pots with biodegradable escape panels on the ocean floor in Cape Cod Bay and Buzzards Bay, part of a study to find out if lost gear continues to catch fish. Turns out these biodegradeable escape hatches — standard on today’s lobster pots — don’t work well. Half of the trawls in the study kept catching lobsters and other sea life long after they were supposed to have stopped.

BY THIS TIME OF YEAR, the threat of nor’easters has mostly passed. The ghost gear churned up this winter has had a chance to settle again under calmer seas. Crews involved with this year’s Stellwagen Sweep, which is scheduled to get under way this month, are looking for new gear balls, relying once again on the knowledge of local lobstermen and their skill with the grapple hook. And this year, sweep organizers are planning their biggest removal project to date, courtesy of a grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. They’re hoping to incorporate two types of sonar — which should provide fishermen with precise, real-time information on where the abandoned traps are — and will use a remotely operated diving submarine to fasten hauling lines to gear aggregations in deep water. The gear that’s still in good working condition will be returned to its owners based on identification tags, and the rest will be disposed of, recycled, or incinerated for energy.

Frank Mirarchi will continue to fish Stellwagen Bank, trawling the depths for cod, haddock, and flounder. He’ll stop almost daily to disentangle old lobster pots and random ocean junk like metal-spring mattresses and dishwasher racks from his nets. He’ll pile it on the dock, and if it’s busted beyond repair, he’ll haul it over to Covanta’s Fishing for Energy bin at the town transfer station. All across the state, those dumpsters will start to fill up again with an alternative fuel that will power homes.

Mirarchi helped pioneer the cleanup efforts that would become Stellwagen Sweep, but he’s stepping aside, having realized that the amount he can contribute is limited. This year he’s leaving the grappling to the fishermen who are best at it — the lobstermen. But the Barbara L. Peters stands at the ready — if the Stellwagen Sweep crews manage to bring any big ghost-gear tumbleweeds to the surface, Mirarchi has promised to lift them out of the water with his onboard crane. Until scientific data finally catch up with the experience of fishermen, these types of partnerships remain the best chance to get the equipment out of the sea, cut down on the overall fish kill, and slowly change the public perception of fishermen from plunderers to stewards of maritime resources. “After so many years, I figure I owe the ocean something,” Mirarchi says. “It’s fed my family for 49 and a half years, so the least I can do is pick it up.”