A warm "thank-you" to the Portland Press Herald / Maine Sunday Telegram for running the op-ed I wrote about the debris I'm finding at Curtis Cove yesterday in the Sunday newspaper. This cove, a "protected" wildlife habitat, is an incredible open-air laboratory of so much of what's currently going wrong in the Gulf of Maine. And in a sense, the wider world.
Curtis Cove, a deep, horseshoe-shaped nook, lies at the southern tip of Biddeford’s coastline. There, gentle waters lap against pebbles and fine gray sand. Rocky tide pools teem with life. Beach roses bloom among the rip-rap. It’s protected space, set aside as vital habitat for great annual seabird migrations.
Unmolested, untouristed. Supposedly free from the modern world.
Yet the modern world swirls in on every tide.
Along the wrack line, the eye catches them. Little flecks of unnatural green, bright yellow. See one, and you can’t help but see more. A few blue, a white fleck, a red one.
They’re the colors of lobster traps, like those seen stacked in front yards and docks and postcards. Except these aren’t lobster traps anymore. They’re part of what happens when a lobster trap dies.
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is old news. The Gulf of Maine is its own plastic garbage patch. Much of our marine litter rolls and bounces along the sea floor, washing up at places like Curtis Cove. That litter includes countless scraps of nondegradable vinyl coating, burst from countless derelict lobster traps rotting on the Gulf of Maine seabed.
I visit the cove weekly, collecting and cataloging what washes in. Along just 150 feet of it I have collected 10,617 pieces of man-made garbage since late winter.
Of course it isn’t all lobster-trap bits. I have found plant pots, fiberglass siding, a car arm rest, carpet scraps, a saw handle, a crate lid, half of a coathook, part of an outdoor thermometer, even an antique clay pipe.
But sadly, most of what washes up here is directly related to lobstering. 8,076 pieces, 76.1% of everything I’ve found. 477 lobster claw bands; 144 trap bumpers; 119 bait bags; 2487 fishing rope scraps -- some 4/5 mile total length. Various other scraps of traps, buoys, etc.
And 4563 flecks of lobster trap vinyl coating.
All from 150 feet of protected cove, in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline.
It’s ugly, of course. It’s litter. It shouldn’t be there. But beyond that, plastics in the ocean adsorb terrible toxins. They kill sealife and shore dwellers. Many of the claw bands (lost overboard as lobsters are being banded) have fish bite marks all over them -- possibly from young cunner. The harder vinyl trap coatings could be swallowed whole, tear an animal up, and survive intact to kill again.
Maine’s Department of Marine Resources licenses 3 million lobster traps each year. How many have been lost? Nobody knows. From the time that the first trap was put into Maine waters all the way up to 2009, DMR kept no record.
Now they require lobstermen to submit a request in order to get replacement tags. From 2009-2011, they received about 38,000 requests per year -- which of course doesn’t account for undeclared losses.
Fishing with rope & traps means losing gear. That’s reality. When it was biodegradable, it mattered less. But around 1980 vinyl-coated steel traps and plastic bait bags/rope became the gear of choice. Because it seemed cheaper, both in cost and effort.
30+ years at 38,000+ lost traps a year means, conservatively, one million derelict plastic-coated lobster traps on the seafloor by now.
Of course a few wash up. Every beach and island has its wrecked traps. Others are grappled and removed by nonprofits, fishermen, & volunteers. But most sit hidden in the deep, rot, and shed their plastic bits over decades.
Fact: One of the state’s largest industries uses a business model that plans for losing hundreds of tons of nondegradable plastic into the Gulf annually -- and offers no mitigation! Industry’s debris, our great-grandchildren’s problem.
It’s well past time to drop the myth of “cheap” plastic. Plastic gear’s costs are very insidious and very real. Besides, the frenzied rush of “more, cheaper, more” has proven to benefit very few. And it leaves a growing legacy of dangerous, persistent pollution that washes up all around us.
It’s time to stop, look at the sand at our feet, and really see what’s there. We must treat our resources with respect. Return to degradable gear, demand a fair price for fishing responsibly, and promote the industry internationally as a model of a conscientious and sustainable fishery.
Whatever we do today, our descendants will still find scraps of yesterday’s “cheap” fishing gear on their shores and inside their sealife for decades. But if we change the game now, maybe at least they’ll look back on us and not shake their heads.