Combatting the Sea of Debris
Marine debris is a big issue for fishermen - for environmental, monetary and practical reasons. Things like lost lobster pots, spools of microfilament and lengths of rope are almost all plastics - bad for the ecosystem and its fish. The derelict gear, as its called, sometimes continues to catch fish, leaving them to die or drown. It also gets caught up in active fishing gear, causing all sorts of problems for the fishermen.
Earlier this year, fishermen involved in an ocean debris clean-up used grappling hooks to drag along the sea floor between Provincetown Harbor and Race Point. Over the course of three days, the operation hauled up 12 tons of stuff - hundreds of fishing traps and pounds upon pounds of netting.
"It's not just lobster traps," said fishing captain and lobster diver John Baldwin, who participated in the clean-up. "It's all kind of other junk gear. There's balls of gilnet and cable, a lot of wire rope from draggers. Also really bad that gets thrown overboard are batteries. That also is a common sight to see, a battery in the harbor."
Laura Ludwig is a program coordinator with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies, who helped coordinate the clean-up, something she's done before in Maine. The center has an interest in the marine debris because of whale entanglements. But another area of interest is plastics. Almost every item used in the fishing industry is made of plastic.
"So plastics in the fishing industry is pervasive," she said. "There is virtually no organic material used in any fishing. including the lobster fishery the gilnet fisher, the ground fishery, draggers, fishing gear lasts a long time, its by design."
While America's plastic revolution began in the 1950s, Ludwig says it's commonly accepted that the 1970s was when synthetic materials really made its way into the fishing industry. Things made from linen, cotton, hemp or wood, shifted to the stronger, more durable plastic.
"But the plastic, by definition, does not biodegrade," Ludwig said. "It remains in the environment. regardless of whether its a marine, benthic, or coastal environment. And that is becoming more and more of a focus for a lot of work with respect to whales in particular."
It never goes away, but plastics do break down in the ocean; becoming smaller and smaller, and eventually microscopic. Research currently is underway to see how animals like whales and fish are affected when they ingest these micro-plastics.
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