When diver Lana Smithson, who splits her time between Gorham and North Palm Beach, Florida, is under the waves she is always removing a hidden threat to animals: Lost and abandoned fishing gear. Her efforts to remove this unseen trash are motivated by the front-row seat diving gives her to the dangers of derelict fishing gear. She shares these worrisome aspects of the aquatic world, along with its wonders, on social media.
After Smithson returned to Maine this spring, I reached her by phone and she told me about a recent dive in tropical waters when a porcupine fish swam unusually close. It was trailing plastic monofilament fishing line and had a metal hook embedded in its face.
“The fish kept circling me and getting closer and closer,” Smithson said. “I tried several times to grab the line without luck.”
Finally, she caught the line and slowly removed the hook.
“I was lucky and the hook wasn’t very deep, and I was able to get it out,” Smithson said. “Porcupine fish when stressed, they puff up and have a lot of spines. I’m sure whoever hooked the animal didn’t want to handle it and just cut the line and threw it back in.”
Unfortunately, Smithson said, her porcupine fish rescue is the exception rather than the rule. For instance, while diving in Lake Winnipesaukee in New Hampshire, Smithson had a more typical encounter with an animal trailing plastic fishing line.
“The hook was so deep down its throat, I knew I wouldn’t be able to get it out,” Smithson said. “The only thing I could do is cut the line. I doubt the fish could survive with a hook way down its digestive tract. After I cut the line, I could tell the animal was completely exhausted and breathing hard. It went and sat on the bottom. I was heartbroken that I couldn’t help this animal.”
Smithson has been diving since 1986, and in the last few years she’s made trash removal the focus of her dives.
A study published last year in the journal Fish and Fisheries estimated that industrial fishing vessels around the globe pollute the oceans with 100 million tons of lost plastic fishing gear each year. This estimate does not include nearshore fisheries, lobster and crab traps and intentional dumping of worn fishing gear. The hazardous debris lurks below the ocean’s surface, trapping, maiming and killing sea creatures year after year.
In addition, plastic fishing lines, nets and ropes can be mistaken for food and ingested by fish, turtles and birds, all the while breaking down over time to create microplastic pollution. Microplastics, which often attract toxins, enter the food chain and accumulate in marine animals’ bodies and possibly any humans who eat the fish, too.
SOURCES OF PLASTICS POLLUTION
In Maine, the Department of Marine Resources allows for a 10 percent loss each year of tags required to be attached to each lobster trap. In 2021, when 2,861,000 million lobster traps were placed in Maine waters, 286,100 traps could qualify for replacement tags. A significant percentage of those lost tags sit on the sea floor attached to lost traps. The Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation in Kennebunk points to estimates that 175,000 lobster traps are lost in the Gulf of Maine each year. Maine requires all lobster and crab traps be equipped with a biodegradable escape hatch to lessen the number of lobsters killed by ghost traps; however the panels take time to biodegrade.
The Blue Ocean Society for Marine Conservation, based in Portsmouth and headed by Jen Kennedy of Eliot, Maine, conducts regular beach cleanups on the shoreline between Boston and Ogunquit. In 2021, Blue Ocean volunteers collected 72,565 pieces of trash. The most common item they removed were cigarette butts, but there was plenty of fishing-related debris, too, including 7,091 pieces of plastic rope, 1,597 lobster bands, 949 pieces of traps, 369 pieces of fishing line, 322 nets and 154 pieces of buoys.
To stem the tide of ghost gear, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation launched a Gear Grab program about 13 years ago, which encompasses beach cleanups, the placement of dumpsters on fishing boat docks that let owners dispose of worn or broken gear without charge, and ocean-based recovery trips. On one such recovery trip, in Harpswell in April, the organization removed more than six tons of ropes, buoys and other fishing debris and 14 tons of plastic-coated lobster traps, according to Erin Pelletier, executive director of the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation.
“I do really want to highlight that the fishermen are very supportive of helping retrieve gear and often ask how they can help,” Pelletier said. “I know that fishing gear is a contributor to marine debris, but it’s a part of the risk of providing seafood to the world. Just like people who have to commute to work, they have a carbon footprint larger than someone who works at home. It’s a cost to all of us in order to keep the economy and food supply going.”
Angela May Bell, board member for the Maine Animal Coalition in Portland, disagrees. Bell reports that during regular beach cleanups in Casco Bay, the most common pieces of trash she finds are sections of plastic rope and plastic bands used to immobilize lobster claws. She said the trash only appears inevitable when people ignore the connection “between their plate and ocean pollution.”
People often ask what they can do about ocean pollution, Bell said. “A great way to make a difference is to eliminate fish and seafood from your diet. Reducing the demand will reduce the pollution.
“In Maine, we romanticize the lobstering and fishing industries,” she continued, “but the truth is, the industry is responsible for much of the ocean pollution and there should be accountability for these actions.”
According to Carla Guenther, staff scientist at the Maine Center for Coastal Fisheries in Stonington, one policy move that has helped make a small dent in ocean plastic pollution is Maine’s ban on single-use plastic bags, which also outlawed plastic-wrapped bait boxes.
Ben Martens, executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association in Brunswick, acknowledges that derelict fishing gear is a significant and troubling worldwide problem. But he questions whether Maine vessels generate as much derelict gear as do fishing boats in other geographic regions.
“Fishermen in South America used to just dump their nets in the ocean,” Martens said. “That’s not something we do in the Northeast. We have fishermen who mend their nets. (The nets) cost tens of thousands of dollars. A lot of care is put into fishing gear in the Northeast.”
SPORTS FISHING DETRITUS
Estimates of derelict gear fail to capture another source of pollution, namely the plastic lines, metal hooks, plastic lures and lead sinkers lost by people who fish for sport. Near the shoreline, where Smithson does most of her dives, that’s the bulk of what she finds.
“In Florida, there are a lot of people sport fishing over the reefs and wrecks, and they’re just draped in fishing gear,” she said. “These delicate coral reefs and there is monofilament line all over it. In Maine, I also see bits and pieces of lobster traps and bits and pieces of ropes.”
Last summer, for the first time she dove with a friend on the Saco River in Biddeford near the boat launch.
“It’s a web of fishing gear down there,” Smithson said. “It’s just layered. We had to keep untangling and freeing crabs. There was so much line, there was no way they were getting out of it. There are so many submerged sticks and rocks that catch fishing gear, I don’t know why they even bother fishing there. It’s horrid.”
Smithson and her friend saved many crabs that day and plan to return this summer for another cleanup dive, this time with a shore crew so they can hand up buckets of trash to be disposed of.
“Our cleanup was a drop in the bucket because the site has so much fishing gear,” Smithson said.
Smithson, who has worked for more than a decade as the New England community outreach coordinator for the national nonprofit Vegan Outreach, is profoundly moved by all her close encounters with aquatic animals, yet one recent sighting stands out. In early March, she encountered an octopus with a clutch of eggs in the waters near the Blue Heron Bridge on Florida’s East Coast, a popular fishing spot.
“I couldn’t believe my eyes,” Smithson recalled. “That type of thing is so rare to see in the wild and amazing. They were brand new white eggs.”
She took a few photos, posted a picture on Facebook and was deluged with photographers asking where she’d shot the photos. Though she tried to keep the location a secret, it was discovered and the mother octopus was swarmed by divers.
“She became a celebrity,” Smithson said of the mother, who stayed with her eggs, protecting and aerating them despite the attention.
Smithson followed their development, posting pictures of the tiny octopuses developing inside the egg sacks, changing from elongated white sacs to see-through pods holding miniature black octopus babies.
“The octopus was very near the part of the bridge where people fish every day,” Smithson said. “Their lines go directly over the structure with the octopus den.”
Like much of what Smithson sees while diving, the experience was complicated: “Good because it was a such a rare experience for divers to see the eggs develop from beginning to end,” Smithson said. “And bad because some photographers overdid it.
“One good thing is that with all this publicity she got, I’ve seen a number of comments on social media from people saying they could never eat an octopus again,” Smithson said. “That made me really happy.”
For the almost two months she tended her eggs, the mother octopus never ate or left her den. Then, like all female octopuses, after her children hatched, she died.
Derelict fishing gear continues to pollute the waters around her former den, while the awe and compassion the mother octopus inspired lives on in those who connected with her through Smithson’s underwater lens.
Avery Yale Kamila is a food writer who lives in Portland. She can be reached at [email protected]