Locating Lost Lobster Traps to Clean Up the Sound

Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County received more than $250,000 in grants from the Fishing for Energy partnership to employ lobstermen to clean up lobster traps...

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By Victoria Shelor via North Shore of Long Island, 12/27/12

To help remove abandoned lobster traps in the Long Island Sound and recycle them into renewable energy, local lobstermen cleaned up the sea floor near Northport and Huntington over the summer. Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County received more than $250,000 in grants from the Fishing for Energy partnership between fishing and marine groups to employ lobstermen in these coastal towns to collect the derelict fishing gear.

Fishing for Energy is a partnership between Covanta Energy, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. that provides a no-cost solution for fishermen to dispose of old fishing gear that is left in the marine environment and works to reduce the amount of derelict fishing gear in and around coastal waterways.

The Village of Northport worked with Fishing for Energy, which provided bins to dispose of derelict lobster traps and fishing gear. After the bins were filled, Schnitzer sifted through and crushed the gear to prep it for Covantra, who takes the gear, such as ropes and nets, and burns them as a source of renewable energy to power local communities.

The local lobstermen removed more than 2,000 abandoned lobster traps from the waters surrounding Northport and Huntington, earning them the title of the Times of Huntington's People of the Year in the Environment.

"Derelict fishing gear can threaten marine life in a number of ways: by damaging ecosystems, entangling marine life, or 'ghost fishing,' by which a net or pot continues to fish after it is lost," said Megan Forbes, national communications coordinator for the NOAA Marine Debris Program. "Derelict gear can also impact navigational safety, damage fishing equipment and boats that are in use, and have economic repercussions for fishing, shipping and coastal communities."

"Northport first piloted the program in 2010 to see if it was worthwhile doing," Northport Mayor and lobsterman George Doll said. "It ended up being a tremendous success."

The project got underway in earnest last summer, putting to work about 45 lobstermen, whose industry has been in decline in the area. The lobstermen drag a grappling hook along the bottom of the Sound to try to catch lost or abandoned fishing gear, which is 99 percent lobster traps, Doll said.

"They pay us to do this, which offsets the cost of running the boat. We end up making a day's pay and we clean up all of this debris," Doll said.

Aaron Littman, another Northport lobsterman, said he got involved when Cornell sent a letter to all the lobstermen in the area asking if they would participate in the initiative.

Though excited to get back out on the water, he said fishing for abandoned gear was "tedious, hard work," but "the program has a lot of merit."

Some lobstermen felt the pinch when lobster fishing in the Sound inexplicably diminished and some moved to more fruitful locales, while some found other vocations.

"All lobstermen did not just abandon their gear," Doll said. "It costs a lot of money to run a boat for a day, so if you're not catching lobsters for a long time and you deplete your resources, you get to a point where you just can't go out anymore, so those traps were left out there because they just couldn't afford to go out and get them."

This initiative gave the lobstermen a chance to get back to sea, while contributing positively to the marine environment.

"Lobstermen know the water and have great skills to contribute to locating and collecting these traps in a way that is really efficient," said Mark Tedesco, director of the Long Island Sound Office of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "It's helping improve the resources for everyone on the Long Island Sound."

The Fishing for Energy project also took place in Mattituck and Mount Sinai. Overall, about 8,000 derelict lobster traps have been removed from the Sound so far, according to John Scotti, marine educator for Cornell. In the Northport-Huntington area, 2,298 were removed. Doll said there are still thousands of traps out there. Depending on future funding, the lobstermen's labor is not yet over.

Scotti said it's anybody's guess how many abandoned derelict traps still remain in the Sound, conceivably upwards of 100,000, versus about 10,000 active ones.

"The project is still ongoing and we plan on returning to Northport this winter," Scotti said.

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