ELLSWORTH, Maine — Lobster traps don’t last forever, but there could be a second life for some.

Some get damaged, others wear out and still others get lost below the waves. The ones that stay underwater — usually because they lose their rope connection to a surface buoy — are referred to as derelict or “ghost” gear by fishermen and industry officials.

Fishermen and lobster industry regulators have accepted such gear loss, but the slow accumulation of lost traps on the bottom has attracted the interest of officials because of the potential impact the traps could have on underwater habitat. Though lost, traps can continue to catch lobsters that eventually die because they cannot get back out.

To deal with the problem, the State Planning Office is proposing to use federal stimulus money to pay for a $2.3 million, 18-month project that would retrieve some of these lost traps from the ocean depths. The federal National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is expected to announce next month whether it will fund the project, which would run from May of this year through October 2010.

State officials say they do not know how many lost traps are in Maine waters but they do know how many replacement tags they issue each year. Each year lobstermen in Maine are allowed to buy up to 800 tags apiece, which they then fasten to their traps to identify themselves as the owner of the gear.

Carl Wilson, chief lobster scientist for the Department of Marine Resources, said Tuesday that to make up for lost traps, the department allows fishermen to replace 10 percent of the number of tags they buy each year. DMR sells about 3.2 million trap tags annually, he said, so with that 10 percent replacement figure, it could be estimated that 320,000 traps are lost every 12 months. Over a few years, that quickly would add up to millions of traps littering the ocean bottom.

But the calculation is not that simple, according to Wilson.

“It’s not just losing traps — it’s losing money,” he said. “Fishermen do make an effort to recover lost gear.”

According to a copy of the written project proposal, officials conservatively estimate that 160,000 traps were lost during 2007 alone. Using this estimate, as much as 50,000 pounds of lobster could be trapped and killed each year by those derelict traps, the document indicates.

The proposal estimates that the project will result in approximately 80,000 traps being recovered.

Wilson said recovering lost traps is not the only objective of the project. As part of the recovery effort, DMR also would conduct research on the effects of derelict gear, including:

ä What other kinds of species might be caught by ghost gear.

ä The effectiveness of the various kinds of biodegradable escape vents that all lobster traps are required to have.

ä Where concentrations of derelict traps are likely to occur.

ä Better estimates of how much lost gear might be in state waters.

“It will give us a better indication of how much gear is down there,” Linda Mercer, head of DMR’s Bureau of Resource Management, said Tuesday. “We can’t possibly [search] the whole coast.”

Wilson said that, because of where most traps are set and where most recreational boating occurs, state officials believe most of the ghost gear is within a few miles of land. The project would include surveys in some offshore areas, too, he said.

“I would say near-shore areas are where we’re most concerned [about derelict traps],” Wilson said.

The project would have the added benefit of providing a few days’ work to hundreds of fishermen who help in the recovery effort. A handful of scientists, technicians, divers and administrators also would get temporary work through the project. The traps would be recovered by a variety of means, including the use of grappling hooks, sending divers and possibly the use of small dragger vessels.

“Localized removal of derelict lobster gear will employ a maximum of 420 contracted lobstermen and their vessels,” the proposal indicates.

Recovered traps would be sorted and processed accordingly. Those that are too damaged to use would be recycled. Wilson said he knows of an example where a 10-year-old trap was recovered in good enough shape that its owner resumed using it.

State officials say they plan to consider whether a permanent onshore collection program for old traps should be implemented to encourage fishermen to recover and recycle their damaged gear.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....