Lobstermen to help rid sound of abandoned fishing gear

BETH YOUNG PHOTO | One of the workers from Covanta Energy removes a lobster trap from a boat on its way to the dumpster.

As the Long Island Sound lobster industry continues to decline, about 40 lobstermen from the north shore have been tapped to work for a federally funded program to help get rid of derelict fishing gear.

The program, spearheaded by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, was just awarded two grants totaling more than $250,000 from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. The grants were announced at a press conference on the edge of the Mattituck Inlet Tuesday morning  with federal, state and county officials and representatives from Covanta Energy, a company that will recycle the metal components and incinerate the remainder of the derelict lobster pots at a facility in Hempstead.

The project was initially spearheaded by Northport Mayor George Doll, who is also a lobsterman and the vice president of the Long Island Sound Lobstermen’s Association. He helped run a pilot program in Northport last year.

“Ordinarily, when the government starts a program and comes walking down the dock, fishermen run the other way,” he said, adding that wasn’t the case with this effort.

He said the key to its success has been the partnership with Cornell Cooperative Extension.

“We have a history of working with Cornell,” he said. “When Cornell comes down, we listen.”

John Scotti, of Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, said lobstermen originally came to him to discuss the problem of “ghost gear” that was either abandoned, damaged, or moved in a storm and had not been reclaimed.

He and Mr. Doll worked together with Northport lobsterman Tor Vincent, who developed a system of grappling hooks that are dragged along the bottom of the Sound in order to hook the traps without disturbing the sediment.

Mr. Vincent, who was in Mattituck for the press conference Tuesday, said it takes a very gentle technique that involves moving slowly and gently popping lobster pots out of sediment in which they have long been buried. He planned to teach lobstermen in Mattituck his technique.

One Mattituck lobsterman who was on hand to witness the process seemed unconvinced that this was the best way to handle derelict fishing gear.

“Why aren’t they going after the guys who left the gear? Every trap has a tag in it [that identifies its owner],” said Matt Demaula, a third generation lobsterman.

“It’s your tax dollars at work,” he added.

Mr. Demaula said that many lobstermen just left their gear in the Sound as the fishery collapsed, though other people at the event, including Mr. Vincent, said that many of the pots were lost or damaged through no fault of the fishermen.

Matt Demaula’s father, Tony Demaula, said that there is definitely plenty of work for fishermen who want to take part in the program.

“You could be there all of a year,” he said. “There’s 10,000 traps abandoned out there.”

Lynn Dwyer, assistant director for the Eastern Partnership Office of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, was listening to the fishermen debate.

“It is a little bit of the end of the tailpipe solution, but we have to do something,” she said.

Other federal officials were quick to point out that, given the current political climate in Washington, money for environmental projects should be celebrated.

“We are in an atmosphere where efforts to preserve the environment are under assault,” said Congressman Tim Bishop. “Environmental quality does matter and it’s directly related to economic stability.”

Mr. Scotti said that he hopes four or five lobstermen in Mattituck will participate in the program, along with lobstermen in Northport, Huntington, Oyster Bay and Mount Sinai.

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