Sunday April 14, 2013 | 12:39 PM
Posted by Harold Johnson

“Sustainability” is today’s big buzzword. Every industry wants in on the sustainability wagon. Buzz sells.

So it’s not surprising that the Marine Stewardship Council recently created big buzz by declaring Maine’s lobster fishery sustainable.

The MSC doesn’t examine fisheries itself. It works with third parties, who do the actual vetting. For the Maine fishery, an industry group, “The Fund for the Advancement of Sustainable Maine Lobster,” hired a UK consultancy, “Intertek Moody Marine,” to study the fishery and prepare a report.

The final report, dated January 2013, can be found here.

At 247 pages, it would seem at initial glance to be thorough. It delves into lobster biology, stock assessments, fishery management practices, ecosystem information, bycatch mitigation, etc.

But here is a list of terms not found in any of the 247 pages: “vinyl,” “litter,” “garbage,” “debris,” “rust,” “hazard,” “beach,” “ingestion.” The word “pollution” does show up 3 times, but only in terms of oil/chemicals. The word “plastic” shows up only 4 times. Again, just in terms of material used, with no cautionary words anywhere of plastic as a pollutant.

In short, in calling the Maine lobster fishery sustainable, MSC/Intertek seem to have nearly fully ignored the ecological damage caused by the tons of plastic gear lost to the Gulf of Maine each year.

Section of the report (pp. 63-64) states that there is no record of the amount of gear lost. That is not true. Beginning in 2009 the Dept of Marine Resources began requiring that lobstermen file a report when applying for replacement tags for lost traps. Since then, DMR has seen an average of 38,000 replacement-tag requests per year.~

Some lost traps are retrieved. Some wash up. Most likely don’t. Instead they slowly rust, releasing little vinyl coating flecks as they do. Here's what I've found in recent weeks:

Feb 19 - 410 pcs

March 22 - 405 pcs

March 31 - 958 pcs!

Since Feb 29, 2012 I’ve retrieved 6608 of these little bits of shiny, bright, sharp-edged ruined trap bits. From the same 150 feet of shoreline at Curtis Cove, Biddeford.

That’s enough to put back together perhaps 5 lost traps. Again, 38,000+ traps are lost each year. The Gulf of Maine is probably now home to countless millions of vinyl lobster trap flecks.

These vinyl bits sink. On the seafloor, they then bounce along, attracting & interacting with marine life in ways no one has yet studied. At calm, protected coves like Curtis Cove they wash up, fouling the shore, threatening shorebirds, littering tidepools.

Beyond the traps themselves is the plastic rope lost by the fishery. Again at Curtis Cove, since Feb 29, 2012 I have collected 4523 pieces of rope, conservatively 7300 feet! More washes in every week.


(Strands of plastic rope dangling out from seaweed, March 22)

Scenes like this were impossible a couple generations ago. Today they’re unavoidable. Plastic gear does not go away. More & more is dumped/lost in the Gulf of Maine each year.*

So yes, Maine’s lobster fishery has invested much time, energy, and expense into watching over the lobster stock, protecting the breeding females, mitigating harm to the endangered Northern Right Whale. All of which is documented in the MSC’s 247-page report.

But just because a fishery isn’t as harmful as it could be, does that mean it deserves to be called sustainable?

If lobster continue to be fished the way they are now, what will our grandchildren's beaches and ocean look like?

I have twice invited the Communications Director of the MSC to come visit Curtis Cove with me at his convenience, to show him firsthand what washes in. I’ll let you know if and when he or one of his associates accepts.


~ The number of lost traps is probably higher, since not every lost trap is replaced. But it’s a good start.

* Maine’s lobster fishery is of course not alone. Nearly every commercial fishery in the world now uses plastic & plastic-coated gear almost exclusively. Fishing debris is a huge & growing problem in ecosystems around the globe.

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About the Author

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.

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