Fisherman teams up with feds to help clear ocean of trash and gear

Ryan Menard

Before heading out for a day at sea Wednesday, Frank Mirarchi talked about landing 400 pounds of flounder. He ended up with nearly 500 pounds.

But that isn’t all the Scituate fisherman hauled aboard his boat. His dragger also pulled up a weathered tire, strips of plastic and segments of rope. Since he started keeping track in December 2005 of the garbage he catches in his fishing nets, he’s collected 1,500 pounds of the stuff.

For years fishermen, with only a limited number of hours to make their living because of federal fishing limits, would simply throw back the trash. But Mirarchi, fed up with dealing with the debris with each catch and disgusted with the garbage pail the ocean has become, met with federal officials to trace, document and get rid of the trash he catches.

“Nobody knows how much of this lost material is down there,” Mirarchi said. “If everybody brought it in, it would be a substantial reduction to what’s in the ocean.”

Mirarchi took his idea to preservationists at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, where he does much of his fishing for flounder, cod and haddock. With little compensation other than the satisfaction of cleaning the hand that feeds him, he and a couple of Scituate lobstermen have been hauling the junk they take from the sea to port and a Dumpster reserved for them and their study.

For now, the small operation is running off a $4,720 grant from NOAA to pay for disposal fees and a mapping project to locate the types and sizes of debris .

The partnership between fishermen and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which oversees Stellwagen, is unusual. The relationship between the two groups has been a contentious one, marked by fights over fishing rules and wildlife protection.

“It’s good when you get to work with fishermen like (Mirarchi) on a mutually beneficial project like this, Stellwagen’s assistant superintendent Ben Cowie-Haskell said. “Sometimes there’s an antagonistic relationship between fishermen and NOAA.”

Some days, like Wednesday’s fishing trip, Mirarchi only picks up a few items of trash from the water. Other times, he has hauled up harvesting equipment - fishing nets and lobster traps - lost from ships and disconnected from buoys.

For fishermen, catching the debris is a time-consuming affair that cuts into precious work hours and comes out of their pockets if they want to dispose of it properly.

“Because of fishing restrictions, we can’t do anything but fish when we’re out,” Mirarchi said. “We need to fish every possible minute of time we’re out.”

Federal officials say that abandoned fishing gear and other trash poses a hazard to everything living in the sea.

“This marine debris poses a hazard to marine life, primarily whales and seals and porpoises and dolphins and certainly fish,” Cowie-Haskell said. “The fishing gear is continuing to fish even though it’s not tended by a fisherman and is needlessly killing marine life.”

Mirarchi and Cowie-Haskell hope to enlist the help of local harbormasters to set up free disposal and recycling areas for fishermen coming into port up and down the Massachusetts coast.

Scituate harbormaster Mark Patterson has allowed Mirarchi and others to bring their sea garbage to the dock, where it can be thrown away or recycled.

“It has been something that’s been a problem for a long time but there hasn’t been an effective way of dealing with this stuff,” Patterson said. “I give them an enormous amount of credit to do this.”

“We’re just looking at the tip of the iceberg,” Cowie-Haskell said. “It’s an ubiquitous problem and, unfortunately, it will probably never go away.”

Ryan Menard of The Patriot Ledger (Quncy, Mass.) may be reached at rmenard@ledger.com.