PORTLAND — This time of year, Tom Martin normally takes his lobster boat, the Lucky Catch, 10 miles off the coast to tend to his traps.

On Monday, he spent the day fishing for “ghost” lobster gear off Fish Point in Portland Harbor with sternmen Brian Rapp and Dave Laliberte.

The Lucky Catch is part of a fleet of 10 lobster boats that are hauling lost gear from Casco Bay. The two-day effort continues today.

Lobstermen are glad to participate because ghost gear gets in their way when they set their traps, and hinders draggers as they scour the ocean floor for seafood.

“If we could do this every five or 10 years, it would be great,” Martin said.

The cleanup is being directed by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation with help from the Maine Department of Marine Resources.

The project is funded with a $200,000 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which was responsible for distributing $1.9 million to Maine and several other states from a $37 million fine paid by the Overseas Shipholding Group. The group was fined four years ago for dumping waste oil in the ocean off Maine, California, Texas and other coastal states.

The lobstermen who agree to participate receive stipends — about enough to cover their fuel costs. “It is not a money-making proposition,” said Laura Ludwig, the project manager from the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.

This is the second year of the project. Last year, 30 lobstermen combed the waters from Lubec to Cape Rosier in Brooksville for six days and retrieved 1,130 traps.

Most traps are metal, but some fishermen still build their own with wood, which decomposes. New lobster traps cost $45 to $75 each.

About half of the traps that were retrieved last year were salvageable. Half of them were returned to their owners. Those that went unclaimed were stored for six months and then auctioned off.

The traps that were too bent and broken to be salvaged were recycled. The oldest trap retrieved had been lost around 1992.

There is plenty of cleaning up to do off Maine’s coast. Last year alone, the state issued about 70,000 replacement tags for lost lobster traps, Ludwig said.

Lobstermen are scheduled to retrieve gear from the remaining sections of the coast in April. There also will be a repeat run around Mount Desert Island, thanks to a $6,500 contribution from The Northeast Harbor Fleet, the New York Yacht Club and two other yacht clubs.

Sailboat racers sometimes get entangled in lobster gear during regattas and cut the gear loose. The yacht clubs wanted to compensate the lobstermen, Ludwig said.

The project also involves research, to assess the impact of lost gear. Ludwig said researchers are trying to answer questions such as whether lost traps become a safe haven for lobsters and other ocean creatures, how much lost gear is out there, and whether lost traps’ biodegradable escape vents actually decompose and let lobsters out.

When fishing gear is lost, is doesn’t stay put on the ocean floor. “During storms, there can be tumbleweeds of this stuff rolling around the bottom,” Ludwig said.

Along most of Maine’s coast, lobstermen set a single trap for each buoy. In Casco Bay, which has heavy commercial and recreational boat traffic, lobstermen are allowed to set a string of traps marked by a buoy at each end. In the summer, Martin said, the bottom of the harbor is essentially wall-to-wall traps.

To find lost gear, lobstermen use their experience and knowledge. Sonar isn’t effective because it picks up any irregularities, including rocks.

On Monday, Martin and his crew knew just where to go: an area known as anchorage A, where large ships are often anchored, a veritable Bermuda Triangle for lobster gear.

The Lucky Catch, which Martin converts to a lobster fishing excursion boat in the summer, headed out just as the sun rose. Martin threw a grapple overboard, and within a minute the heavy, multi-armed device had snagged on a line. A hydraulic winch soon hauled up a trap, covered almost entirely by spitting sea squirts.

It is cold and muddy work. It took all three men to lift the trap, weighted down by the water-filled squirts, on board. Green crabs fell to the deck and scuttled into the corners as a flock of hungry sea gulls gathered overhead.

Inside the trap lolled several healthy, legal-sized lobsters and several juveniles. The men were not allowed to keep the lobsters in other people’s traps, so they threw them back, along with the crabs, fish and other creatures they found.

Martin estimated that the string of six traps, each with a tag identifying the owner, had been lost for a couple of years. He knows the owner, a Buxton resident who retired two summers ago.

Laliberte filled out a data sheet for each trap, noting information such as its location, its condition and any wildlife inside.

Another drag with the grapple brought up a cable, about an inch in diameter, that was used to drag fishing nets. Such cables are often left to sink to the ocean floor when they’re no longer serviceable. The twined metal is dangerous to handle when it begins to disintegrate and splinter. Martin threw it back.

The next drag brought up a bonanza: a string of more than a dozen traps, which may have been in the water only since last summer. Finding such a long string was surprising, Martin said. Most lobstermen who lose so many traps at once would try to recover them, rather than pay to replace them.

At the end of the day, piles of lobster traps were unloaded at the Portland Fish Pier, where owners who had been called were gathering to pick up their recovered gear.

“These were all lost to the tankers,” said Ryan Libby of Buxton, whose pickup truck was filled with recovered traps belonging to his father and brother.

A friendly rivalry developed as the boats came in.

“I won,” yelled Marshall Spear, captain of the Endeavor, who hauled up 45 to 50 traps and several hay bale-sized tangles of ropes.

Then the Lucky Catch arrived, with 60 traps squeezed onto all available deck space.

“We’ll see over the two days,” Spear said.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]