Sunday, January 29, 2012

Transatlantic Connections - Part I: Lobster Trap Tags

After nearly two years, there's plenty I'm still learning. But one thing is sure. The same oceans that divide us, connect us. In the Pacific, the currents tie East to West and West to East. The Atlantic, thanks to the Gulf Stream, is more of a one-way street, North America ---> Europe.

Plastics from my part of the world can make the 3,000-mile crossing unscathed, washing up on Irish & British shores. Many bear marks that identify what they were, where they came from, and even when. Each is a time capsule and a fabulous source of information, and stories. If one knows what to look for!

So here's the first in a series of pages dedicated to long-distance plastic debris. Stuff that could start in the Gulf of Maine, wash up on an Irish or British beach, and be found.

Lobster Trap Tags

Gulf of Maine lobster trap tags are a common find on beaches in Maine. And, it turns out, far from Maine. Lobstering is an enormous & highly regulated local industry. By law, all lobster traps must have one of these colorful little strips attached to it.
Trap tags are color-coded by year. The tags above are the colors used in Maine from 1997 (top) through 2010 (bottom).

Each tag is stamped with owner's license, federal fishing zone, trap #, state/province, year, and region. So, for example, the green one is 6841 A1 0789 ME 09 Z:G EEZ. 6841 is the owner's license; A1 is the national region (basically coastal Maine); 0789 is the trap number; ME 09 is Maine 2009 season; Z:G is Maine's "G" zone (the most southwesterly; with A being the most northeasterly); and EEZ meaning the trap can be set out in deeper water several miles offshore.

(Tags from other states & Canada use varied color schemes. Also, Maine has some anomalies. The bottom tag says "NC," which means non-commercial -- this is a recreational fisherman who's allowed to have only 5 pots in the water at one time.)

In season, there can be several million lobster traps in the water. Tags break free from traps all the time. They're buoyant, and many find & ride the Gulf Stream to Ireland and the UK. Rik Bennett was combing his beach in Wales in 2010 when he stumbled upon this one:
Not bad for 3 years at sea
More recently, Andy Goodall from Newquay, Cornwall, UK discovered this Newfoundland, Canada specimen in December 2011:
Stunning shape for maybe 12 years at sea!
And last but not least, an amazing story of connections across 3,000 miles and 20 years. Rosemary Hill lives Waterville, County Kerry, Ireland. Walking the beach last year, she stumbled upon a tag. Not the colorful annual band, but a separate permanent tag that IDs the owner more thoroughly.
On a hunch, she decided to see if she could find the owner. And she did, through his son's FaceBook page. This tag, belonging to a Massachusetts fisherman, was on a trap lost in the "Perfect Storm" of 1991! After an incredible journey, it washed up on Irish shores. And a transatlantic connection was formed, reported in both European and American newspapers.

Plastic is forever. And that's bad news. But if it's out there in the ocean already, and it has stories to tell, isn't it nice to be able to tell them? Keep your eyes open; you never know what you may find!


  1. Harry, Those are amazing journeys. I recently read of a unmanned boat ("Queen Bee") making a similar trans-Atlantic crossing. Account was in the Nantucket newspaper:

  2. Al, thanks for that link -- Incredible! I always figured US material would get to mainland Europe as well, but had trouble finding specific hits. An entire boat's 4-year epic voyage kind of fits the bill!

  3. Harry, Thanks for the post. It is cool these tags are dated. As a polymer chemist I would love to get my hands on some to test the degree to which the plastic is degraded. Knowing the starting date of use and the time when it is taken out of water one could extrapolate the time it takes to degrade in sea conditions. Something people are always speculating about. Andrej Krzan

    1. Hello Andrej,
      I am a lobster fisherman off the Gaspe Peninsula in the Quebec province, Canada.
      I could get you a few tags with pleasure. Just say the word!
      I would actually love to discuss with you on this topic. I found a little treasure myself.
      Hoping to hear from you soon,
      Julie (

  4. Hello Andrej! Thanks much for the note. I agree, I love the idea that something out there in the ocean has a definitive "start date." (Or at least vaguely definitive)

    In a future "Transatlantic Connections" I'll be highlighting something else that will be on its way over to Europe from us -- tens (or hundreds) of thousands of little plastic "biodisks." They were part of a sewage treatment plant in New Hampshire, US, andwere accidentally released into the river (and from there the Atlantic) in March, 2011. They're very distinctive, so any that wash up will be easy to identify. And the "start date" of their journey is known almost to the exact day! I find one or two here every now and then, and visibly they still look pristine. I need to write that one up and get it posted. I would love to see one confirmed over on the other side of the Atlantic. They should be getting there now.

  5. Hi Harry

    I found a bright red arched shaped tag on the beach today in Camber, Sussex. It is bright red and has the letters:



    Is this a lobster pot tag or is it something else do you think? Do you know of any databases where I can find out where it is from.

    1. Hi Anthony, thank you much for the note! It sounds like this is something that may have been used as a container seal or crate seal -- an anti-tampering seal or identifier for a shipping container or crate. I find varieties of those all the time. Sadly it seems common for them to be removed from the crate at dockside and pitched or lost into the ocean. Some look very different from the lobster tags in the photos above, some look more similar. I'll run a few Google searches and see if anything with the words "TT Seal" comes up, to try to narrow it down a bit.

    2. Hi Harry
      This was found the other day at Winchelsea Beach, East Sussex, U.K - the next door beach to Camber (It would be good to meet up with Anthony).

      Ocean drifter - Lobster tag. Found high and dry on Winchelsea Beach strandline today. Made in Canada. Long journey.

      The letters on it are
      S2001 DFO LOBSTER 38P
      S2001 MPO HOMARD 38P
      it also has CANADA MAYER MONTREAL

      All the best and keep on doing what your doing,


    3. I found one of these today on the Beach in Harbour Island, Bahamas
      it reads
      2478 1 200 MA00 LOBSTER

  6. Thanks Harry. Yes I noticed that it was different from the images above.

  7. Harry,

    I just found another one like the one that landed in Ireland here in Cornwall, UK:

    I'm pretty sure this comes from MA and I'm trying to track down Jim Hefler now!

    1. Hi Paul. Wow! Great photo of another long-traveler. That tag looks like it's been heavily beaten up over the years. I'm not sure if the "T" at the beginning is significant, I don't remember seeing that before on any others I've found/seen. I wish the tags had more information, like the state where they're issued. But it does make for a good mystery. Let me know if you come up with the Jim Hefler in question!

  8. Hi, we found a white lobster tag in Donegal Ireland last week.
    It reads
    09 dfo lobster nl 327966
    Any ideas where it may be from?
    Mark, Ireland.

  9. Hi again Harry,

    Here's another just turned up today in Cornwall - from Newfoundland by the look of it, but I can't see any date on it...

    BTW did track down Jim Hefler, tried to contact him through his son's Facebook but didn't hear back...

  10. I found (and kept) an orange (2007) tag on a beach on St Agnes, Isles of Scilly last week. What an amazing journey the tag has made. Made even more interesting as i'm a conservationist currently writing an assignment on marine plastics for university. I'd love to find the owner if anyone has a clue how? All lettering and numbers are perfectly intact.
    Sarah, Cornwall

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  12. Hello Harry,
    I appreciate the content of your blog. I escaped freezing cold Eastern Canada to participate in a plastic pollution research mission in the Caribbean. I found things from Africa, Asia, the surrounding islands but my most intersting treasure is from Canada...
    I have been fishing lobster for the past three season in Quebec and found an old Newfoundland tag on a deserted island in the Bahamas last March.
    I am trying to identify the date and the owner.
    To be honest, it looks almost exactly like the one from NL in your picture (the one on the map...).
    Same colour but there is no date..
    I will keep you posted!
    Julie -

  13. I also found a strange tag on a local beach off of the Gaspe Peninsula. I cannot identify it & do not know what it's purpose was. I only know it is from Nova Scotia.
    Maybe you can help me...?
    Thanking you in advance,
    Please find a picture on the following link:

  14. Some stay with the label, others eat lobster. The law of the bastards ...

  15. The Maine lobster industry tags are making their way to the Canary Islands. A plastic monitoring program has recently found about 15 of them on north-facing beaches of three of the eastern islands.