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Rich Bard

Rich Bard photo courtesy of Rich BardRich Bard is a wildlife biologist who began his career as a zookeeper. Having spent most of his adult life moving around the country working with various wild animals, he settled near the coast of Maine in 2004. Amid the striking beauty of this remote region, he passes the time with his family, hiking, snowshoeing, gardening and watching the tide ebb and flow.

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Ghost Traps Haunt Our Beaches and the Ocean Floor
Monday, 15 July 2013 00:00  |  Written by Rich Bard | Blog Entry

Lobster Trap Washed Up on Maine Beach photo by Rich BardThere is a certain stretch of beach that I walk regularly. Being part of a naval base, it is closed to the public, but I have permission to do shorebird surveys there. Only once in three years have I seen another person’s footprint in the sand, most likely from a boat that landed there.

As I walk slowly along the sandbar, focusing on identifying and counting birds, I could easily forget about the outside world of man, except for one problem: the tons of trash that wash up on the shore of this otherwise pristine little paradise that I have all to myself.

These are working waters. Lobster boats, clam diggers, scallop and sea-urchin trawlers, shrimp boats, salmon, mussel and oyster aquaculture; these are the backbone of the local economy. These are also the source of the flotsam and jetsam that distract my eye as I watch for tiny migrating plovers and sandpipers.

Lobster traps, oilcans, bleach bottles, buoys, rope, plastic gloves, water and Gatorade bottles--even the occasional boot--litter the beach and forest that border it. On a recent bird survey, I decided to add another species to my count. In a one- mile stretch of beach, I counted 33 lobster traps washed up on shore. I have watched a few of these traps slowly disappear beneath the sand in the three years I've been patrolling this coastline, so who knows how many hundreds may be beneath my feet.

Ghost Gear
Weighted down by bricks or concrete, the traps are normally tied to a floating buoy that lets the lobstermen or women retrieve their quarry, but ropes wear out or are snipped by passing propellers, leaving derelict traps (aka ghost gear) littering the ocean floor. They are colonized by seaweed, barnacles and mussels as they slowly migrate in the strong tidal currents of the Gulf of Maine.

Unlike lost fishing nets, a biodegradable door eventually opens in the traps, so lobsters, crabs and fish can escape if the trap isn't retrieved. Unfortunately, the rest of the plastic-coated wire trap isn't biodegradable and so they accumulate down there. Out of sight, out of mind, unless they happen to wash ashore. You can see sonar images of ghost lobster traps here online.

Beyond My Beach
Recently, the Maine Department of Marine Resources (DMR) applied for a grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for funds to begin assessing and cleaning up the problem, a daunting task. The proposed project is pitifully small compared to the scope of the problem.

The proposal estimates that 160,000 traps may be lost every year in Maine, resulting in the death of 50,000 pounds of lobster before the biodegradable doors open. (You can tell you are dealing with commercial fishing when wasted lives are counted in pounds.) The United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) reports (pdf) that up to 500,000 lobster traps may be lost on the New England coast each year. They go on to estimate that perhaps $250 million of marketable lobster is killed in ghost traps (similarly measuring in dollars instead of lives).

With a budget of $2.3 million to be spent over 18 months, the pilot project is expected to recover only 80,000 traps, or not quite six months’ worth of lost traps. At least it’s a start. DMR hasn't heard whether the grant will be approved or not, but the biologist whom I contacted didn't sound very optimistic.

As I walk my deserted stretch of beach, I note the slow movement of the traps over time and watch them fill up with sand and cobblestones washed up on the beach by New England gales. I tell myself that they are just part of the beach, along with the driftwood, broken shells and seal, duck and dolphin bones that also litter the shore.

The shifting sands, pounding surf and ravages of time will erase them all...eventually.

Additional resources:
$2.3M Eyed to Retrieve Lost Lobster Traps
A Cooperative Effort to Collect 'Ghost Traps'

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Comments (3)add
Written by Rich Bard , August 03, 2009
Hwochholz,
I'm glad you asked. I really didn't think that you could report a found trap, so I never looked into it...until you asked. In Maine, you can call the Department of Marine Resources main phone number, 207-624-6550. Tell them the number of the trap and they will contact the fisherman. If you are in some other state, check the webpage of whatever resource agency manages lobster fishing, or give them a call.

I guess I have some work to do to check all the traps I found for tags!
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Written by Hwochholz , July 25, 2009
Where do I call if I have new traps washed up on our beach...complete with the # so the fisherman can pick up three new traps?
Any idea?
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Written by Nicole , July 07, 2009
I enjoyed this blog Rich...
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