Divers Remove Ghost Fishing Gear From Ill-Fated Fishing Vessel

By Anne Smrcina

September 2021

The Patriot shipwreck is a testament to the dangers of fishing in New England waters. Two fishermen from Gloucester, Massachusetts lost their lives in the sinking of the 62-foot-long, steel-hulled trawler in 2009. After settling to the bottom, the wreck’s ghostly gear continued to fish unattended—trapping curious fish and drowning an unfortunate gray seal. The billowing nets around this shipwreck, located within Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, created an ever-present danger to divers as well as marine life.

A Lost Net and Unspooling Gear

As part of the International Coastal Cleanup (September 18) and the Massachusetts Coastsweep effort (September through November), a multi-agency dive team set out in late summer to remove some of the most hazardous gear. Armed with dive knives and heavy-duty shears, lift bags and grappling lines, pairs of divers took turns cutting away a trawl net most likely lost by a fishing vessel that got too close to the wreck, along with a gill net, and a part of Patriot’s net that was unspooling from its reel.

Three scuba divers don their cold weather gear on the deck of a research vessel
Divers use drysuits to prevent hypothermia as the temperature at the dive site was a chilly 50 degrees Fahrenheit. Photo: Ben Haskell/NOAA

After two days of hard work, on August 31, approximately 500 lbs of ghost gear ended up on the deck of the sanctuary’s research vessel Auk. The team transported the collection to Scituate Harbor where they deposited it in a trash-to-energy dumpster for fishing debris.

“Shipwrecks hold an important place among sanctuary resources,” noted Ben Haskell, deputy superintendent at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary and one of the divers. “We think of them as windows into our maritime history, and, in this case, a memorial to those who perished at sea.”

Site For Experienced Divers

The sanctuary offers several destinations for proficient divers that want to experience challenging conditions and relatively few visitors (other than marine life). In July 2020, Heather Knowles, co-owner /operator of Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions and board member of the Sanctuary Advisory Council reported that fishing gear around the wreck was creating serious problems. Her dive group found a gray seal caught in Patriot’s net. The site was becoming a prime example of “ghost fishing,” a process by which unattended gear continues to capture and kill fish and other marine life. The ghost gear also poses a hazard to divers at the site.

a large fishing net underwater with a seal trapped in it
A 2019 dive to the wreck of the Patriot revealed a dead gray seal that had become trapped in the ghost gear. Photo: Heather Knowles
A large fishing net underwater with algae growing on it, fish swimming around it, and sea stars crawling through it
Many fish and invertebrates move in and around the nets draping the wreck of Patriot. Unfortunately, some of them get caught in this ghost fishing gear. Photo: Keith Ellenbogen

The pandemic forced a delay in action, but early in the summer a team from Northern Atlantic Dive Expeditions, Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries (MassDMF) and NOAA's Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary conducted reconnaissance dives to formulate a plan for net removal. NOAA Fisheries and NOAA’s Marine Debris Program also provided technical assistance.

Temperatures of 65 degrees Fahrenheit at the surface and 50 degrees Fahrenheit at the seafloor (approximately 100 feet on Stellwagen Bank) necessitated use of drysuits and thick gloves along with advanced diving techniques to remain working on the shipwreck at that depth. Given the dangerous nature of this work, additional divers served as safety observers in the event that a working diver got caught up in the loose fishing gear.

Equipment Added After Nets Removed

Work did not stop after the nets were cut away and strapping was placed over the net remaining on the fishing vessel’s reel. The dive team attached scientific equipment for ongoing research projects onto the upper side of the wreck. One acoustic receiver records underwater sounds as part of the national SanctSound project, which is helping to develop a better understanding of the levels of background noise and types of sounds in our nation’s waters. The other equipment, a telemetry receiver, records the presence of tagged marine life that swims by, such as the white sharks from a recent joint effort of the sanctuary and MassDMF.

A scuba diver attaching a cylindrical pice of equipment to a rope
A member of the dive team attaches an acoustic receiver onto a part of the wreck’s wheelhouse. Data from this recording device will be used in the national SanctSound project. Photo: Ben Haskell/NOAA

“This was an excellent example of how federal and state agencies along with private industry can work cooperatively for the good of the environment and to support scientific research,” said Vincent Malkoski, of MassDMF, project leader and a dive team member. “We’re planning future dives to maintain the underwater scientific instruments as well as check on the remaining net to keep the site safe for divers and marine life.”

“The professionalism of all the partners in this collaborative effort was outstanding,” added Pete DeCola, superintendent of the sanctuary. “We look forward to working together like this in the future to identify and remove marine debris where it presents risks to people and marine resources.”

Anne Smrcina is the education coordinator for Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.