Lobster traps, lines and bait bags are piled up on Outer Bar Island, which was cleaned up by people with Ocean Conservancy, the Rozalia Project and volunteers with the Maine Island Trail Association. Gigi Veve/Ocean Conservancy

Environmental advocates and volunteers working to reduce the amount of abandoned fishing gear in the Gulf of Maine hit pay dirt last month on a small privately-owned island off Corea, a small lobstering village east of Bar Harbor.

With help from locals who provided a skiff and a spot on the wharf to put their dumpster, the small group brought back 4,723 pounds of so-called “ghost gear” to be trashed or recycled, including about 230 derelict lobster traps. The expedition to Outer Bar Island in late June was made up of people from Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, local nonprofit Rozalia Project and the Maine Island Trail Association, a group that protects undeveloped islands along the coast.

“You see this tiny little island, just piled 10 feet (high) with lobster traps and rope and buoys and just all this stuff that is washed up on the shore,” said Madeline Black, a spokesperson for Ocean Conservancy. “It’s eye-opening.”

The abandoned gear gets washed up on the island because of winds and currents, particularly during storms, said Ashley Sullivan, executive director of the Rozalia Project. The trash has been accumulating for decades, Sullivan said, and with over half of it remaining on the island, they’ve “barely made a dent.”

“We found a trap tag that was from like, 1997,” Sullivan said. “But with all the annual loss, more gear will be there next year.”

Black said abandoned gear can continue to capture and kill marine life for years on end, which is a problem for both marine life and the people who fish for a living. In a place like Maine, where fishing is such a huge part of the economy and culture, environmental advocates say, hundreds of thousands of traps get lost and abandoned each year in the gulf.


“If those traps are at the bottom of the ocean, capturing lobsters that otherwise could be … caught by a fisher and taken up and sold, that’s also a huge cost,” Black said.

The gear, which is now largely made with plastic, also has long-term environmental impacts, Sullivan said.

“You’ve got metal traps that are coated in plastic, you have buoys that are made of styrofoam or other hard plastic. The rope is also synthetic,” Sullivan said. “It’s not like back in the day with the wooden traps and the hemp or cotton line.”

The problem isn’t specific to Outer Bar Island, said Christina Hassett, a regional stewardship manager for the Maine Island Trail Association. Many of the thousands of islands on Maine’s coast do not have full-time residents to regularly pick up abandoned gear.

“There are sites that we’ve gone to where … you can hear the trash before you see it,” Hassett said. “You’re in tall grass and you just hear the crunching of plastic that’s been so UV degraded that it’s just, like, shattering underfoot.”

A pile of ghost gear lobster traps gathered during a cleanup on Outer Bar Island off the coast of Gouldsboro during a cleanup in June. Photo courtesy of Maine Island Trail Association

Black said prevention is the main goal of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a program operated by the Ocean Conservancy dedicated to tackling the issue of abandoned fishing gear worldwide. The initiative, partnered with the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, removed a 20-thousand pound ball of gear from off Portland in 2019, according to the Ocean Conservancy. A similar but smaller ball of gear weighing two tons was pulled up off Cape Elizabeth in 2018 by The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.

“While removals like this are critical for the health of our environment and the health of our oceans, ultimately the way we’re going to solve this problem is by preventing gear from being lost in the first place,” Black said. “The good news is that many fishers are already aware of this problem and doing their part to prevent lost gear.”

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