Getting old gear out of the water, and out of our waste stream too

Oct 30, 2019 | Plumbing the Depths

Tom Smith hauls in his net; it may have a second life as electricity. Photo by David Hills/ Fishy Pictures

The first in an occasional series of stories on new life for derelict fishing gear, funded in part by a grant from the Orleans Water Alliance.

By Doreen Leggett

doreen[email protected]

This winter, when he’s not fishing, Tom Smith will spend time in his backyard replacing some of the webbing in his nets.

The nets he uses to catch bluefish are 500 yards long, and he switches out a section of them every year.

“I actually enjoy it. It’s like winter therapy,” said Smith, of Orleans.

Later this winter, or maybe this spring when Smith is back on the water feeling the bite of the wind, he can take satisfaction thinking about someone being cozy and warm on account of electricity generated from his old nets.

He rolls them up like bales of hay and takes them to the Provincetown Transfer Station, where discarded fishing gear is picked up as part of the Fishing for Energy Program.

The program first started in 2008 as a partnership between the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation (NFWF) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, looping in Covanta Energy Corporation and Schnitzer Steel.

Kaity Goldsmith, manager of marine conservation at NFWF, said the program has hauled in more than three million pounds. Some is retrieved directly from the ocean by fishermen because abandoned or lost gear can continue to fish, entangle marine mammals and sea turtles or become a safety hazard for fishermen and other mariners. Other gear is collected on land, in ports across the country.

“The program started in New England because historically those are some of the oldest fishing ports in the country. At the time we started the program, there were also some active NGOs and ports that NFWF had been working with around the topic of right whales and so we knew those ports and those fishing communities. Also, in the New England region, fishing companies tend to be smaller and could use support for funding disposal of fishing gear. So once we entered the New England area, we expanded from there,” Goldsmith said in an e-mail.

Goldsmith said they are piloting a new model this year for the bin program, changing where the material goes. Traditionally gear is first sorted at Schnitzer Steel Industries for metals recycling, and the remaining non-recyclable material is converted into energy at Covanta locations. Under the new model, a port may form its own partnership with recyclers and waste-to-energy facilities to best serve a community’s needs.

“This new model allows us to expand into new territories that were previously difficult to reach due to the location of the Schnitzer Steel or the Covanta partner. Under the new model, ports can submit an application for a small grant to sustain bin activities for two to three years,” she wrote.

Cape ports that participate in the program won’t see any big changes, but landfill managers have been given surveys to gauge their experience.

Some fishermen, such as those who let their gillnets soak in the water longer than Smith, replace their nets more often.

“My nets are heavy duty nylon, so they last a lot longer,” Smith said.

Josh Pelletier, transfer station manager in Chatham, said he believes the program started because the harbormaster’s department wanted to make sure there was a place for old gillnet gear.

“It’s a convenience for fishermen,” Pelletier said, adding that it’s free.

Chatham will take most everything – including clamming baskets – as long as it’s related to fishing.

“Basically what this does, in conjunction with Covanta, is keep it out of our waste stream, which is what we want,” he said. “It’s not like we get swamped with the stuff. It was emptied a month and a half ago.”

Not all the gear from local fishermen goes to a transfer station. Some captains have relationships with contractors, mainly in New Bedford, who take old nets away.

But Wellfleet has also been a long-time member of the program, with the amount of gear being carted away ranging from 43 to 48 tons over the last several years, said Mike Cicale, the transfer station manager.

“We always fill up our four free dumpsters,” he said.

“Wellfleet is kind of unique because we have so much shellfishing,” he said. “Best to get the gear out of the harbor.”

Cicale said if they didn’t have the program the town would have to charge disposal fees and that would get pricey. They take the plastic netting that spat is grown on and other plastic materials; oyster racks go in the metal pile, which the town makes money on.

“The fishermen are really cooperative about it,” he said. “It’s a good program for Wellfleet.”

There are other efforts that take the program in new directions. Laura Ludwig, marine debris and plastics program director at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, is involved in a program that proactively locates and collects “ghost” fishing gear from the ocean and often deposits it in the Fishing for Energy bin.

“Those bins are providing a really great service,” she said.

Previous removal efforts conducted in Cape Cod Bay by the Center and fishermen from local ports have recovered more than 31 tons of lost, abandoned or derelict lobster, gillnet, dragger, trawl and recreational fishing gear, including 780 lobster traps. To handle the bulk of that recovered gear, Ludwig has partnered with Nauset Disposal, which provides dumpsters as part of their sponsorship of the program. The Fishing for Energy bins come in handy when the sponsored effort expires.

What Ludwig also tries to do is take the gear out of the waste stream entirely.

She collected rigid plastic off local beaches and shipped three massive salt bags to TerraCycle in New Jersey, which works with Proctor & Gamble, who is marketing shampoo in beach-friendly, upcycled bottles. Some of the bags were filled rigid pipe and seed trays taken from the Wellfleet flats.

“That is another way of diverting it from the waste stream,” she said.

Goldsmith said they try and help those initiatives if they are able to.

“Over the years we have had conversations with people interested in using fishing materials for creating all kinds of items, such as picnic tables, gear tackle boxes, mats, dog collars and leashes, etc. We applaud and love these innovative ways to reuse gear and oftentimes we are able to connect the small business with ports in their area to have conversations around the material supply and demand. So we make those connections where we can, but it’s not part of our waste stream,” Goldsmith said.

Ludwig thinks the program could be enhanced even further by collecting gear right at a port and having it taken to a transfer station by a third party. That would also help fishermen who retrieve someone else’s lost gear but are hesitant to take it in because of the time and labor commitment involved.

In the meantime, the gear that is collected through Fishing for Energy will continue to power homes in the region.

Approximately one ton of derelict nets equal enough electricity to power one home for 25 days, Goldsmith pointed out.

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