When fishing gear is lost off boats, it's not really gone. In webs and rolling clumps, the nets, ropes and traps endure for decades as destructive artifacts of the fishery, suffocating life on the ocean floor, snaring fish and twisting into propellers.
But this "derelict gear" might actually be able to do some good. A program introduced in New England this year aims to clean the ocean by collecting everything from nylon nets to wooden lobster traps and burning it to generate electricity.
Fisherman Frank Mirarchi of Scituate says he spends hours untangling discarded gear from his nets. It can be dangerous if heavy pieces snap free of the net.
Getting it out of the ocean is essential, he said. Turning it into electricity is a bonus.
"It's fabulous," said Mirarchi, a 64-year-old who's been fishing for 46 years. "Right now, anything we can do to avoid burning foreign oil makes me feel pretty good, actually."
The "Fishing for Energy" program accepts various types of gear to be burned, including different plastic lines and nets. It recycles metal equipment such as rollers and chains used on draggers.
No one really knows how much of the gear is left in the ocean after being snared, discarded or abandoned, but it's significant. Mirarchi kept track one year and pulled up 5,000 pounds of marine junk on his boat alone.
The program, which started three years ago in Hawaii, is part of a partnership that includes local ports, the energy-from-waste company Covanta, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and Schnitzer Steel.
It began in Hawaii to retrieve gear that was damaging coral reefs and entangling wildlife and has since collected more than 31 tons of the debris there, said Sarah Morison of NOAA's Marine Debris Program.
47 tons already
Covanta decided to expand the program to the mainland, starting in New England this February. The company provides 30-yard containers at different ports where fishermen can dump the gear at no cost. It then collects and burns the gear for power at an nearby company incinerators, which are equipped with emission control scrubbers that remove pollutants that otherwise would be released when the plastics and other material used in the gear are burned.
Since February, the program has collected 47 tons of gear in New England, including 20 in New Bedford. The Fairfield, N.J.,-based Covanta estimates one ton of the marine debris can provide 25 days of power to a house.
Permanent containers are in place in New Bedford, Chatham and Scituate and will soon be installed in Newport, R.I., said Christine McCoy, director of Covanta's external affairs. The program has also held single-day gear collections in Gloucester, Brookhaven, N.Y., and Barnstable.
McCoy said the company plans to expand to Cape May, N.J., in October, and is working to bring the program to Virginia, Florida and Oregon. In the next year or so, the company aims to have "Fishing for Energy" in at least 30 ports around the country.
Covanta pays transportation costs and estimates disposal costs of $140 a ton. McCoy said the company doesn't expect to make a profit from the work, but considers it a profile-raising and worthwhile effort.
Out with the old rope
Bonnie Spinazzola of the Atlantic Offshore Lobstermen's Association said "Fishing for Energy" works for her group by collecting gear they are being forced to throw away.
By next year, lobstermen must switch from floating rope to rope that sinks to the ocean floor as part of a mandate to prevent rare right whales and other marine mammals from being snagged in their lines. That means tossing untold tons of rope — Spinazzola said there's 40 to 60 miles of rope on each offshore vessel.
But disposing of it is difficult and expensive, and until now there was no easy way to do it, she said.
"It's huge, we're very excited," Spinazzola said. "Not only are we disposing of it properly, but it's an extremely responsible method."
Spinazzola's enthusiasm must be broadly shared for the voluntary program to work. Mirarchi said it's easy for a busy fisherman to toss the gear back in, though he said he never did for ethical reasons. Now it should be easy to just bring it in.
"The number of willing participants is going up," he said. "It's become less of a chore to get rid of this stuff."