NARRAGANSETT, R.I. (WPRI) — Abandoned fishing equipment, also called ghost gear, has been haunting Narragansett Bay for decades.
Discarded fishing tools have been described as one of the most harmful forms of marine debris. Countless abandoned traps, rope, pots and nets litter the bay floor, long forgotten by the fishermen who left them there.
“This is gear that has been lost or discarded that’s no longer being used by the fishing industry,” said David Bethoney, executive director of the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation. “It’s kind of like trash that’s found in the ocean.”
Marine life, such as whales, dolphins and sea turtles, often get entangled in discarded fishing nets.
The so-called ghost gear can also interfere with navigation for some vessels.
When figuring out how to rid Narragansett Bay of ghost gear, Bethoney said the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation chose a step-wise approach.
“We wanted to get the fishermen’s knowledge about where it is,” he said. “They mapped out on nautical charts where they encountered ghost gear. We then went out on a couple of trips with these vessels.”
The Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation dropped an underwater camera into Narragansett Bay where fishermen believed the ghost gear might be.
Most of what was found was in the bay’s East Passage, specifically west of Rose Island, which is off the coast of Newport Harbor.
“We found some traps that had clearly been there for a long time,” Bethoney said.
The depth of the ghost gear in Narragansett Bay varies between 10 and 125 feet.
Bethoney said when fisherman trawl the bay, their nets can get caught on the lobster traps or other discarded nets.
Al Eagle, a fisherman for nearly five decades, tells 12 News it’s really troublesome.
Eagle is primarly a lobsterman, but likes to trawl for seasonal fish in the bay. He explained that sometimes, fishermen who are leaving the industry dump their old equipment into the bay.
Then while trawling, fishermen will accidentally bring the ghost gear onboard their vessels.
“It’s illegal for them to have gear on their boat that’s not theirs,” Bethoney explained.
He said that’s why fishermen who catch the ghost gear typically toss it back into the water.
On top of causing problems for fishermen and marine life, ghost gear can also be a source of pollution.
“If people are concerned about plastics in the ocean, ghost gear is a source of that,” Bethoney said, noting that nets are typically made up of small pieces of plastic.
The Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation is out to eliminate ghost gear for good. Now that they know where some of the abandoned equipment is, Bethoney said they plan on removing what they can.
But even so, Bethoney believes there’s much more ghost gear haunting the bay than what their cameras captured.
And Eagle estimates that there are “thousands of derelict lobster traps somewhere in Narragansett Bay.”
“An interesting area is near the [Newport Naval Base] and Gould Island,” Bethoney said. “That’s a no trawl zone, and fishermen want to put it where they won’t hit it again, so a lot gets dumped there.”
While there could be large piles of ghost gear in the waters just west of the Naval War College, investigating the area requires some coordination with the U.S. Navy, which Bethoney said is already underway.
With some financial assistance from 11th Hour Racing, the Commercial Fisheries Research Foundation will soon begin removing the discarded fishing gear.
But it won’t be an easy task.
“A lot of this gear has been down for years,” Eagle explained. “It’s been buried in the mud, sinking further and further … it’s going to be a project.”
The work to remove the ghost gear is expected to begin in late February and early March.