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National Marine Sanctuary Program Teams Up with Fishermen to Reel in Marine Debris

By Matt Dozier
National Marine Sanctuary Program

Frank Mirarchi (left) and Ben Cowie-Haskell (right) with some marine debris on the deck of Mirarchi's boat
Frank Mirarchi (left) and Ben Cowie-Haskell (right) with some marine debris on the deck of Mirarchi's boat
Wayward plastic grocery bags. Abandoned fishing nets. Worn-out car tires. For Frank Mirarchi, marine debris is an ever-present reminder of the harmful impacts humans have had on the world’s oceans — the source of his very livelihood. Years ago, the veteran Massachusetts fisherman decided he had to do something about it.

Mirarchi, a 45-year commercial fisherman from Scituate, Mass., regularly hauls up loads of trash in his nets along with his catch, reeling in everything from derelict fishing gear to lost kites. In June 2006, Mirarchi and mate Dave Haley of the fishing vessel Barbara L. Peters teamed up with Ben Cowie-Haskell, assistant superintendent of Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, on a one-year demonstration project funded by the NOAA Marine Debris Program to track the amounts, times and locations of the debris they find within the sanctuary and dispose of it properly back on shore.

“This is all a first step in understanding the scope of the marine debris problem,” Cowie-Haskell said. “It has been a great opportunity for the sanctuary to work with a local long-established fisherman like Frank on developing a solution to this pervasive problem.”

Mirarchi said sanctuary staff were “amazed” to learn how much debris he recovers on a daily basis. While the average amount varies, after large storms his vessel can pull in hundreds of pounds of tangled flotsam in a single day.

Since the program began in June, Mirarchi said he has already recovered several thousand pounds of debris. Plastics are the worst offenders — synthetic fishing lines and nets, packaging, and wind-blown grocery store shopping bags can take decades to decompose in the ocean. While the majority of the debris Mirarchi brings in is derelict fishing gear, the catch has included countless old shoes, glass bottles and even slot machines.

All this time spent untangling junk from gear translates into lost fishing time for Mirarchi and others who ply the waters of the Gulf of Maine. Nets, longlines and lobster pots all get tangled with debris, which can cause delays and damage equipment and cost fishermen money.

“More fishermen are starting to bring the stuff in,” Mirarchi said. “They realize that there’s no point in throwing it back.”

Marine debris — derelict fishing gear like lobster pots and gill nets, in particular — also poses a serious threat to endangered whales that frequent Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary in the summer. Whales can become entangled in lines connecting wayward gear to buoys on the surface, resulting in harm to the animals and sometimes even death.

“Our goal is to improve the working conditions for fishermen and clean out this debris that is harmful to the environment,” Mirarchi said. “This is a win-win situation.”

National Marine Sanctuary Program staff are exploring ways to expand and improve marine debris removal efforts at the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary in the future, with the help of a proposed grant from the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Cowie-Haskell said the sanctuary’s partnership with Mirarchi will continue, and plans include using a towed video camera to provide detailed data and images of marine debris on the seafloor and working with state and local government to make shoreside disposal of the debris more efficient.

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