A sonar image of abandoned lobster traps, which sometimes appear like...

A sonar image of abandoned lobster traps, which sometimes appear like rocks and trap sea life, seen on the bottom of Long Island Sound. Credit: Eastern Search & Survey/Ben Roberts

Like unexploded ordinance left under long-forgotten battlefields, abandoned traps continue to endanger sea life on the bottom of Long Island Sound more than two decades after a die-off wiped out much of the lobster population.

This spring a decade-old effort by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County to remove thousands of "ghost traps" from the sound will move into Nassau County waters for the first time. Lobster traps, which are also called lobster pots, are made with escape hatches with materials designed to corrode in case they’re lost or abandoned but they don’t always work. Most traps are 3-by-2-by-1-foot boxes, according to a company that conducts sonar surveys.

"When you're talking about these things that maybe have been down there 15, 20 years, that kind of settled in the mud to the point where that door won't open … maybe still be able to trap sea life, that's the ghost fishing aspect of this," said Scott Curatolo-Wagemann, senior educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. "Something gets in there. It can't get out. It dies and it’s basically becoming food for the next creature. So it's perpetual."

At the height of the lobster fishing industry in the sound before the lobster die-off at the end of the 1990s, there were about 500,000 lobster traps in Long Island Sound, he said. The project has removed about 20,000 traps off Long Island, over the past decade, mostly in waters off western Suffolk County, he said.

In 2022, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County, in partnership with Friends of the Bay, the Town of Oyster Bay and local fishing operations, plans to make 20 trips to retrieve ghost traps from an 18-mile area, including an area off Oyster Bay and in Connecticut. This part of the project is being funded through a $115,841 grant from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

"This project will help to solve an environmental problem that few people realize exists," Friends of the Bay executive director Heather Johnson said in a statement. "These abandoned traps not only contribute to marine debris, they continue to attract and often kill marine life."

In the fall of 2020, Ben Roberts, founder of Eastern Search & Survey, an informal organization that is being turned into a commercial company, conducted sonar surveys off Oyster Bay harbor to identify abandoned traps on the bottom of the sound.

"Sometimes they are very clear in those sonar images," Roberts said. "They tend to appear in clusters because the fishermen will deploy a string of them together so you may see a group of box-shaped objects."

Other times, however, they may appear like rocks, he said.

Those sonar images, along with information from fishing operators, help identify derelict traps for retrieval, a process that involves dragging long lines with grappling hooks to snag the traps and pull them up to boats.

Carl Safina, professor of marine science at Stony Brook University said all kinds of commercial fishing create problems when lines, nets or traps get lost.

"The idea of ghost gear — lost fishing gear that still catches — is actually an enormous worldwide problem," he said. "A lot of lost gear has the potential to continue to catch."

Side-Scan Sonar Survey

• A torpedo-shaped sonar hung off a boat and scanned the ocean floor

• The scan covered an approximately two-square-mile area off Oyster Bay

• The scans identified 810 potential targets that were narrowed down to 665 targets

Source: Ben Roberts, Eastern Search & Survey

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