HARPSWELL, Maine — Dana McIntire knows the throaty rumble and mannerisms of his lobster- and shrimp-fishing boat Island Lady so well that he can tell when she’s laboring.

“I think we’ve got another one, Chuckie,” said McIntire to his sternman, Chuck Van Vlack, as they puttered around Harpswell Sound on Tuesday with a taut winch cable towed behind. To the untrained ear, the change in the engine’s rumble was imperceptible. To the untrained eye, the winch cable’s tugging and wobbling wasn’t any different than it had been for most of the day.

Van Vlack, who has been working on the water with McIntire since he was a teenager, donned rubber gloves and grabbed a steel pipe, which he used to guide the cable onto the spool while McIntire worked the machine’s hydraulic controls.

Winching in a catch is nothing new for the Island Lady, though usually there are lobsters or shrimp at the end of the line. This time there was a tangled and corroded mess of rope, steel and netting that years ago was a working lobster trap. And that’s just what they were looking for as part of a coastwide effort to clean stranded fishing gear from the sea floor.

“Well, I’m just an old dog who’s done this over and over again,” said McIntire when asked about his ability to recognize a catch even when it’s still 30 fathoms under water.

In the span of about six hours, McIntire and Van Vlack, both of whom live in Harpswell, hauled up more than 30 lobster traps in various states of disrepair, ranging from rusty and twisted heaps to traps that with a little repair could be used again tomorrow. At day’s end, the freighted Island Lady returned to Ash Point and unloaded its mostly ruined cargo for recycling or possible reuse.

McIntire’s boat was one of four vessels in the midcoast region that participated in a “ghost gear” recovery project sponsored by the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. The effort, which started in southern Maine earlier this month, continues this week in the Tenant’s Harbor area.

To collect the gear, McIntire use a short 100-pound piece of chain of the sort that keeps cruise ships and aircraft carriers tethered to their moorings. Welded to the chain’s jumbo links are staunch grapple hooks designed to snare fishing gear. In 10 attempts, McIntire and Van Vlack came up with nothing only once, filling the Island Lady to capacity.

One look across the lobster-rich water around them made it evident that this mode of cleanup couldn’t possibly come close to finishing the vast cleaning job. But according to McIntire, that’s no reason not to try.

“Why bend over and pick up that piece of trash while you’re walking?” said McIntire. “I like to get this stuff up off the bottom and all of a sudden, you’re looking at a full 40-yard dumpster and there’s one just like it in Portland and another one in Tenants Harbor. The next thing you know, we go through years and then decades with efforts like this. It is and it isn’t a needle in a haystack.”

The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation is in its second year running the program, which is supported by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and others, according to Erin Pelletier, the Lobster Foundation’s executive director. Funding has also come from unexpected sources, such as a recent donation from a group of Maine-based yacht clubs. The cleanup in Harpswell was the 10th the foundation has organized in the past two years.

“Yes, this is a drop in the bucket or the tip of the iceberg,” said Pelletier. “But it’s our responsibility to do the responsible thing with our trash. These lobstermen want to do the right thing.”

Pelletier said the lobster foundation is also planning a cleanup of washed-ashore fishing gear in Harpswell next month as well as a program that allows fishermen to dispose of their unwanted equipment for recycling.

Cleaning up lobster traps that have fallen victim to broken ropes or loss isn’t as easy as it sounds. It’s illegal in Maine to handle a lobster trap that you don’t own, even if it’s obviously far beyond its usefulness. To circumvent that, the foundation works with the Maine Department of Marine Resources for special permits that allow the handling and recycling of the gear.

“That’s where we can all help out for a community project like this,” said Pelletier.

As with anything to do with fishing, there’s a little competitiveness among the lobstermen in the ghost gear cleanup.

“We weren’t in last place yesterday, were we Chuckie?” asked McIntire of his sternman.

“We weren’t first,” replied Van Vlack dryly. Radio chatter indicated that another Harpswell fisherman named Scott was already bringing his second load of ghost gear on Tuesday to the dock.

“Well, I hate to be outshined, but that’s great. It looks like Scott’s going to be the highlight this year,” said McIntire. “Chuck, I think we’ll swing around and get uptide again for another pass.”

Christopher Cousins

Christopher Cousins has worked as a journalist in Maine for more than 15 years and covered state government for numerous media organizations before joining the Bangor Daily News in 2009.

8 replies on “Lobstermen clean up ‘ghost gear’ from Maine coast”

  1. “It’s illegal in Maine to handle a lobster trap that you don’t own, even if it’s obviously far beyond its usefulness.” Now there’s some more government bureaucracy and control. Snag a useless twisted and rusted trap and you’d better cut the line and let it go back and litter the ocean floor where it might snare an unsuspecting critter. Or face a fine for taking garbage from the ocean.The foundation has to get “special” permits from Marine Resources. Sure hope they don’t have to pay for the permits.

    1. I have never seen that enforced on a washed up, busted up, useless trap, maybe they should amend the law?

    2. There are MANY obscure dumb laws in every state… okay, I looked up another for Maine and here’s one for Augusta specifically – It is illegal to stroll down the street playing a violin.  

      In Biddeford – It is illegal to roller skate on a sidewalk.  

      In Freeport – It is illegal to sell mercury thermometers.  

      Here’s a great one – In Biddeford it is illegal to park in front of Dunkin Donuts.  

      In Waterboro – Dog leashes may not be over 8 feet.  

      Throughout the state of Maine – Shotguns are required to be taken to church in the event of a Native American attack.

      And oops… plenty of people are violating this one that pertains to the entire State of Maine – 
      After January 14th you will be charged a fine for having your Christmas decorations still up.  

      And I saved one of the best for last… Advertisements may not be placed in cemeteries.

      A lot of other states have crazy outdated laws on their books too. You should see some of Florida’s! So, if you think these people are going to get arrested for this or that Maine has crazy laws you haven’t seen anything like Florida’s dumb laws!!!

    3. Traps today have bio-degradable components that will prevent them from turning into sleeper traps. Old traps on the bottom used to turn into death hotels as one thing would get in there, die and rot and attract something else. That process could go on for a long time.

  2. It would be nice if these hard working men could be compensated for the work that they do, at least furnish the gas for these guys.   The government must have some funds for this kind of thing.  Now here is a project worthy of supporting.

    1.    If they caught , prosecuted and fined every lobstermen that cut someone elses bouy line because he was pizzed off at the other guy,  we could fund the clean up of the entire Atlantic Ocean Floor!

      1. I was thinking that very thing.  The vast majority of lobstermen are of exceptional character however every fisherman knows that one major reason there are so many untethered traps is because disputes are sometimes settled by cutting the other guys buoy line.  Not nice, but it happens.

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