Tuesday, March 11, 2014
February 19th -- a banner day at the cove.
The air was in the mid-30s, but snow & ice still blanketed the biggest part of the beach.
Only a thin line -- marking the reach of the last high-tide -- was unburied and thawed.
In that thin band of exposed sand and wrack, along barely 150 feet, I found all of this:
These are the remains of dead lobster traps. They’re the vinyl coating that peels and bursts off a derelict trap on the seabed, as the steel underneath rusts & bubbles out over many decades. All told, on that raw day I collected 410 bits of it. From the same beach I clean week after week.
The big switch from traditional wooden traps to vinyl-coated steel happened en masse in the 1970s. Steel is sturdier, can take more punishment & be put into rockier places. More can be strung together to make lobstering more efficient.
But since steel rusts, it needs its protective plastic coating. And when traps get lost, all that plastic doesn’t just disappear. Plastic never disappears. (The same is true of plastic rope, bait bags, trap bumpers, bag cleats, buoys.)
In the past year, at this same small stretch of beach, I’ve collected a total of 5237 trap scraps.
More wash in each week.
5237 scraps is enough to put together maybe 3 ½ lobster traps. According to the Dept of Marine Resources, Maine alone loses at least 38,000 traps to the Gulf each year.
Almost breathtaking, that until a generation ago, this sight would have been impossible. Now it’s inescapable on some beaches.
Before pointing the finger at industry, we should point it back at ourselves. We consumers demand more! Cheaper! More! Of everything. That’s true of lobster too. A lobsterman who doesn’t use (what seems like) the cheapest & most efficient gear soon becomes an ex-lobsterman, squeezed out of an incredibly competitive business.
Yet the plastic gear used to catch our food is not cheap. It only seems cheap because we haven’t actually started paying the cost yet. Instead, we create a legacy of fouled beaches & damaged ecosystems that may take lifetimes to clean thoroughly.
Meanwhile we pat ourselves on the back for the good bargains we find.
For the Maine coast, the choice is stark. Business as usual, in which tens of thousands of plasticized traps (and countless miles of plastic rope) continue to add up in the Gulf every year. Or a switch to biodegradable & sustainable gear. Gear that will cost a fisherman noticeably more, and will bring that cost to our plates.
No matter what choice we make, the bill we’re ringing up needs to get paid. Do we have the courage to start paying it today, or do we leave it for our kids, grandkids, and great-grandkids?
Visiting a Maine beach in March 2010, Harold Johnson was shocked by the ocean-borne debris left by recent storms. He grabbed a garbage bag and a camera, and hasn’t looked back.
Since then he has spent most of his free time studying marine pollution, coastal ecosystems, and the mysteries and science of ocean and shore.
Copyeditor and writer by trade, historian and archaeologist at heart, Johnson’s philosophy is simple: Dig below the surface, travel the currents, make the connections, learn. Then share what you learn. He lives in Saco with his wife and young daughter. Follow on Twitter @FlotsamDiaries.