Combatting the Sea of Debris

Jul 12, 2013

Jeff Brodeur, a communications and outreach specialist for the Woods Hole Sea Grant program, holds a bucket of debris he collected from Racing Beach in Falmouth. Brodeur says that about 80 percent of the items found on beaches came from land sources. The vast majority of those items are plastics.
Credit Sean Corcoran / WCAI

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."

Provincetown Harbor Master Rex McKenzie holds a grappling hook that was used in a clean-up of Provincetown Harbor. Derelict fishing gear and marine debris not only costs the fishing industry money, it can threaten sea life withe contamination and entanglement.
Credit Sean Corcoran / WCAI

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. 

Listen to and explore all our WCAI radio reports for The Long Haul:

Part 1: New England's Fishermen Face a Challenge in Every Direction

Part 2: Cooperative Research Improves Fishery Science and Relationships

Part 3: Dwindling Baitfish Stocks Worry Fishermen and Regulators

Part 4: Protected Seals Raise Many Questions

Part 5: Combatting the Sea of Debris 

Part 6:  Not Just Fun, Recreational Fishing a Big Business for Massachusetts

Part 7:  Investigating Fish Contamination Leads to Questions About Genetics

Part 8: Climate Change Forces Reevaluation of Fishery Management

Part 9:  Aquaculture on the Rise Across the Cape and Islands

Part 10:  Shared Hopes for Our Fisheries' Future