A mass of tangled gear is removed from shoal water Tuesday off Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. Long Island lobsterman Steve Train hauled the so-called “ghost gear” to shore aboard his vessel, Bad Company. Staff photo by Penelope Overton

A two-ton, decades-old ball of underwater marine debris measuring 15 feet in diameter was pulled from Dyer Cove off Cape Elizabeth on Tuesday, the biggest example of derelict fishing gear recovered from the Gulf of Maine in at least a decade, according to the lobster industry group that removed it.

It took hours for a group of divers, lobstermen and environmentalists to lift the tangled knot of fishing ropes, nets and traps from 35 feet of water near the Lobster Shack at Two Lights, haul it over to Merrill’s Wharf in Portland, cut it into small enough pieces to lift ashore and break it down for recycling.

“Look at it, it’s huge,” said Jim Buxton of Scarborough, the lobsterman and diver who helped raise it. “It has a little of everything. I see gill nets, trawl nets, lobster traps. Every fishery we’ve ever had here and more. Look there at the size of the mesh. That hasn’t been used in decades.”

The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation has been ridding local waters of so-called “ghost gear” for a decade, culling state waters of more than 5,000 traps during that time, but it is usually done trap by trap, said Executive Director Erin Pelletier. This ball will likely top out at between 4,000 and 5,000 pounds.

Ghost gear poses a threat to marine life, fishermen and boaters, said Elizabeth Hogan, manager of World Animal Protection’s U.S. ghost gear initiative, which is why the group has agreed to pick up the as-yet unknown cost of Tuesday’s recovery effort.

“Nobody wants to lose gear, but it happens,” Hogan said. “Ground lines break in storms, they get cut by boat propellers, get tangled up in popular fishing areas. We are trying to prevent it when we can. When we can’t, we try to recover, return and recycle as much of what’s lost as possible.”

Steve Train, left, and Paul Fischer load parts of a broken-down ball of debris into a trash bin Tuesday on the Portland waterfront. The so-called “ghost gear,” a tangled, two-ton blob made up of ropes, lobster traps and netting, was brought up from the waters off Cape Elizabeth. The World Animal Protection organization has agreed to pay the cost of the recovery effort. Staff photo by Brianna Soukup

175,000 TRAPS LOST ANNUALLY

World Animal Protection estimates 640,000 tons of gear are lost in the world’s oceans every year. Closer to home, the foundation cites studies done over the last decade showing that lobstermen lose about 175,000 traps a year in the region’s waters.

The traps and nets keep catching fish long after they are lost to the fishermen who set them, creating a cycle of death that drains fisheries for no reason, including vulnerable species like cod or haddock. The nets and ropes pose an entanglement threat to marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins.

Ghost gear can even damage a recreational boat’s propeller, Hogan said.

The unmarked lines can entangle other gear that is unknowingly laid over it, which gets expensive for a fisherman. The lost gear isn’t making money for them, but they also have to pay to replace it, which can run $100 a trap and thousands for a good net.

Steve Train, a Long Island lobsterman who hauled the mass into shore on his boat, Bad Company, said the lobster industry believes in careful tending of the fishery and its habitat, which means keeping it free of debris. But that kind of stewardship also makes good economic sense, he said.

“I believe in cleaning up my mess, and when I can, I don’t make one,” Train said. “Too expensive.”

BIGGER DEBRIS BALL STILL LURKS OUT THERE

According to studies cited by the foundation, ghost traps cost Maine’s lobster industry $16 million every year.

Tuesday’s debris ball may have been the biggest one ever recovered in Maine, but the recovery team is sure it’s not the biggest one that remains within the Gulf of Maine. Buxton has dived near an even bigger ball that lurks in 25 feet of water about 300 feet away from the one he hauled out Tuesday.

Buxton estimates that one stretches about 45 feet across. The group had hoped to remove that big one, too, but concluded it wouldn’t all fit on Train’s boat. They would have to rent a barge. Buxton has one of those, but by noon, the easterly wind had grown too strong to dive so close to the rocks.

That one has grown so big that it has begun to resemble an artificial reef, with crabs and lobsters living inside it. But ribbons of rope and net radiate from the central mass like tentacles, some so thin as to be invisible underwater, threatening to entangle passing mammals and trawl lines.

As soon as weather and schedules permit, Buxton and fellow diver Paul Fischer hope to return to Dyer Cove to recover the bigger ball. That ball would follow the same path as the first – headed to ecomaine, where the metal will be melted down and the ropes burned for energy.

Penelope Overton can be contacted at 791-6463 or at:

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