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Science & Environment

Fishing for Ghost Gear

A stack of nine lobster traps on the back of a boat
Lexi Krupp

Lobstering will start up in Cape Cod Bay next week once migrating right whales swim out of the area's plankton-rich waters. From February until early May, the state prohibits fishermen from setting traps in the bay to protect the feasting whales. But while the fishery was still closed this season, a handful of lobstermen kept busy on the water.

This time, the fishermen weren’t looking to bring home any catch. Instead, they were after some of the thousands of traps and nets lost to the bottom of Cape Cod Bay each year. The leftover equipment is called ghost gear, and the sea floor is crowded with the stuff.

"There’s always gear to be recovered. It could be a perpetual motion machine," says Laura Ludwig, a project manager at the Center for Coastal Studies, a marine research group based in Provincetown.

Ludwig coordinates a program that pays lobsterman a thousand dollars a day to haul up some of the derelict gear from the bay, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The goal isn't to clean up all the lost gear sitting on the ocean bottom. They’re only trying to get a handle on the problem.

A haul in early April out of Marshfield brought up traps heavy with Jonah Crabs, lobsters, and a wriggling fish with bulging lips called an ocean pout.

Those creatures might have died inside the traps without the rescue effort. A study by the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries found the majority of derelict lobster traps continue to kill anything that swims or scuttles inside.

Ocean pout, a eel found in the Atlantic in the hands of a fisherman
Credit Lexi Krupp
An ocean pout off the waters of Marshfield

Even if derelict traps aren't catching ocean critters, their presence is a problem. Lobster traps are coated in plastic. As they age underwater, that covering breaks down into tiny bits that scatter across the ocean.

“There is a whole bunch of literature on how caustic that is to the benthic environment,” says Ludwig.

In four years, the program has collected more than 40 tons of sunken fishing equipment from Cape Cod Bay. That's the weight of nearly 20 cars. 

Ludwig hopes the data the program has collected will convince policy-makers that ghost gear is a problem worth addressing. “Until that changes we are always going to find ghost gear," she says. "Always.”