Wednesday, May 19, 2010

The tie that binds?

Commercial fishing is the lifeblood for much of Maine. In 2000, the state granted some 18,000 harvesting licenses. About $336 million in seafood was landed in that year alone.

So it's little surprise that the detritus of commercial fishing washes up on local shores. But I was surprised by the amount. By any measure -- number of items, volume, weight -- the refuse of commercial fishing outstripped any other material I was collecting.

March 8:

March 19:

Trawler rope, line, netting, shellfish baskets -- if claw bands were a big business, fishing rope is a juggernaut. Google "fishing rope" and you get 10,000 hits. Almost all of it is now made of nylon, polypropylene, and other plastics that don't biodegrade. It all lives a hard -- and short -- life. And obviously much simply ends up shredded underwater or tossed overboard, then rides the currents wherever they lead. (It's a phenomenon documented on beaches around the world.)

Plus, it easily tangles with marine plants. Almost every clump of kelp that I picked through had rope, or thin, nearly invisible fishing line, hopelessly knotted up within it.

And of course this raises a slew of new questions -- does the rope/line actually help bind the kelp and clump it together? If so, is that a bad thing? Are there organisms who eat kelp and ingest rope fragments too? If so, is it harmful? And the organisms that bind to the ropes -- are they helpful or harmful when they hitch a ride? Does the rope sink and roll along the ocean floor til hitting shore -- or does it float and swirl near the surface?

Then there's the elephant in the room -- was all this fishing flotsam a one-off, or is it pervasive up and down the coast? Is it the unavoidable price of maintaining an industry that drives so much of my state's economy, and very way of life?

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