Marine Debris

According to NOAA, marine debris is defined as any persistent solid material that is manufactured or processed and directly or indirectly, intentionally or unintentionally, disposed of or abandoned into the marine environment or the Great Lakes. It is a global problem; there is no part of the world left untouched by debris and its impacts. Marine debris is a threat to our environment, navigation safety, the economy, and human health.

One important component of marine debris is derelict fishing gear or DFG. Years ago, fishing nets and gear made of natural fibers were replaced with synthetic materials such as nylon, polyethylene, and polypropylene. Unlike the natural fiber, synthetic fishing gear is nearly impervious degradation and, even if lost, abandoned, or discarded, can remain in the marine environment causing persistent damage.

The adverse impacts of DFG include destruction of habitat, “ghost fishing” (the unintentional trapping of animals in a lost, abandoned, or discarded gear), introduction of invasive species, hazards to navigation and safety of life at sea, and entanglement and mortality of protected and endangered species. Due to oceanic currents and other factors, DFG can travel significant distances and affect resources far from where it was originally lost, abandoned, or discarded.

Since 2013 the Center for Coastal Studies has worked with local fishermen and marine and environmental to remove debris from our bays and beaches. The project is a collaboration between several CCS programs including seafloor mapping and marine fisheries.

Recovery begins with a survey of the seabed utilizing the Center’s high resolution side scan sonar to locate accumulations of DFG. Lobster fishermen, working from their own vessels, use grapples to recover the gear, which is deposited on land for sorting and analysis.

Detailed records of the debris are created and include data about lobsters and other animals in traps, condition of the escape vents, and trap identification. This information is entered into the regional DFG database to help inform managers, lobstermen and other interested parties about the presence and impacts of lost gear in the marine ecosystem.

Many recovered traps are intact and deemed “fishable”. Many carry ID tags and are retrieved by their owners after being contacted by the Project Director; others are unclaimed or unidentified, and, as per state protocol, are transported to a Law Enforcement holding facility where they will ultimately be auctioned off.

Un-fishable traps, along with the net, rotted rope, shrunken buoys, and junk netting, are transported to a Fishing For Energy* partner facility in New Bedford where metal is recycled, and the remains burned for energy at a Covanta plant.

Here at the Center, as it is elsewhere, the key to the success of clean-up programs is collaboration and cooperation; local partners include the Provincetown Public Pier Corporation and the Office of the Harbormaster.

* Fishing for Energy is a partnership of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Covanta Energy Corporation, Schnitzer Steel Industries, Inc. and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), working to reduce the amount of marine debris in and around coastal waterways. Fishing For Energy bins are located at the Provincetown and Wellfleet transfer stations, providing a no-cost solution for fishermen to dispose of old, derelict or unusable fishing gear.