In May, 2018, GGGI Participants World Animal Protection US and the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation (GOMLF) conducted a GGGI solutions project to remove an accumulated mass of inactive fishing gear from Casco Bay in the Gulf of Maine. Elizabeth Hogan, US Campaign Manager for Oceans & Wildlife and Erin Pelletier, Executive Director of GOMLF organized several local fishermen to loan their time, vessels, and assistance to the project.
While past gear retrieval projects in the Gulf of Maine typically made use of multiple fishing vessels and a grappling technique intended to target lost lobster traps specifically, the 2018 solutions project incorporated diving and the use of float bags to raise the gear, as opposed to grappling, and targeted a mixture of gear types. Among lobster fisheries in New England, the loss rate for lobster pots is estimated to be 10-30 percent annually. The number of licensed pots set annually in Maine waters alone reaches close to 3 million, leaving an estimated annual ghost pot accrual of 600,000 per year. But additional gear types are also used and lost in the Gulf, including (but not limited to) seine nets, buoy lines, monofilament gillnets, and codends.
The dive work in Casco Bay is led by lobsterman Jim Buxton (F/V Nomad), a certified salvage diver and owner of a barge with carrying capacity for the two gear masses previously identified in Cape Elizabeth, the westernmost point of Casco Bay. Once on the water, Elizabeth Hogan and Allison Schutes worked together with Erin Pelletier of GOMLF and the local fishermen and divers to remove a mass of underwater debris, by placing float bags on the mass in various positions and hooking it to a winch mounted on the boat, then hauling the mass up via the winch. The final compiled gear mass measured 15 feet in diameter and weighed 1.76 tons. It was the largest mass of ghost gear ever recovered in Maine, with the potential to entangle thousands of fish and other marine animals over time. During preliminary dives in the area, the fishermen also spotted a second ball of discarded gear significantly larger, as much as three times the size of the first, and intend to retrieve and recycle that one as well. Unfortunatley, while the weather the dive day was deemed sufficient for gear retrieval, the wind was still too strong in order to use the barge, which meant that only one of the gear masses could be retrieved.
The mass of debris was composed entirely of ghost gear, including lost ropes, lobster traps, and netting. Much of the gear the team found underwater is no longer made, meaning the debris had been accumulating for decades. Some of the nets that were pulled up were determined to be several decades old given the mesh size, which had since been restricted.
The recovered debris was brought back onshore to Portland and will be recycled by Ecomaine. A significant challenge at this point in the project was the ability to separate and sort the gear, which was firmly matted together and incredibly difficult to separate. The entire team worked for an entire day using only small knives to break down almost two tons of nylon, polyethylene, and steel.