Ghost fishing-gear removal program starts in Cuttyhunk

This is the first project of its kind for the island.

Massachusetts Environmental Police Lt. Col. Patrick Moran stands in front of a pile of lobster traps on Cuttyhunk's shoreline in October of 2021. — Courtesy Center for Coastal Studies

The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown began fieldwork this week to remove “ghost fishing gear” from Cuttyhunk’s shorelines; that’s lost fishing gear resting at the bottom of the ocean. The center’s team conducted an aerial survey with drones on Monday to map debris areas and access points. 

The center’s staff and volunteers from Cornell University will remove lobster traps, rope, and other items from the shoreline in April. The gathered debris will then be documented, sorted, and loaded into containers to be hauled off the Island for disposal or recycling. Some of the materials will be set aside for artwork that will be exhibited at a later date. 

“CCS has a ghost fishing-gear removal program in Provincetown, carried out each spring in cooperation with the local commercial fishing community, volunteers, and state officials,” Center for Coastal Studies spokesperson Amy Jenness wrote in an email. 

That effort is led by Laura Ludwig, manager of the center’s Marine Debris and Plastics Program. She said her cleanup work was primarily done in the Gulf of Maine; this is the first time ghost fishing-gear removal has been done in Cuttyhunk. “It’s kind of exciting,” Ludwig said. 

She said that Cuttyhunk residents approached the center and requested assistance for this effort around two years ago. The center will be collaborating with several groups and people on the ghost fishing=gear removal project, including the Cuttyhunk STEAM Academy, Massachusetts Environmental Police, commercial fishermen, and others. “It’s not an easy task to clean a shoreline, and you need a bunch of pieces in place,” Ludwig said. 

The center’s Marine Debris and Plastics Program was awarded a $55,206 grant from the Southeast New England Program (SNEP) Watershed Implementation program, which was funded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 2022. 

As the southernmost land in the Elizabeth Islands chain, Cuttyhunk is vulnerable to debris washing up ashore because of wind, storms, and the lobster fishing that takes place in nearby waters. 

However, Cuttyhunk is not the only community that’s had problems with ghost gear. Ludwig said other Elizabeth Islands also need cleaning up, and she expects some parts of Martha’s Vineyard also have a number of missing lobster pots on their shores. “It just depends on the weather, how many years have gone by since someone cleaned up the shoreline,” Ludwig said. “Every storm brings up debris onto the shoreline.” 

Ludwig said removing ghost fishing gear is not the only task her staff handles, and they can’t go to every community. She wants each coastal community, particularly islands with a year-round population, to have its own “autonomous project” to steer them, particularly in places the center may not have the resources to get to. However, the center can help with fundraising. “Disposal costs are very expensive,” Ludwig said. 

However, to make this a reality, there need to be changes to the law. Ludwig said current regulations treat fishing gear as private property, so it is illegal for an individual to handle it without permission. So if someone was participating in a beach cleanup, they would not be allowed to take a lobster pot. The center gets its authorization from the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries. 

“This has been a hindrance to the ‘good Samaritan’ approach,” Ludwig said. 

Ludwig said the state has been working to redefine what could count as trash, such as a lobster pot without identification markers. Ludwig is part of a state task force that has been trying to make a language change. If amendments go into effect, individuals will be given more freedom to start their own ghost fishincg-gear cleanup projects. “It’s likely to happen,” Ludwig said.


  1. This article does a poor job of explaining what the problem is— I have never put a trap in the water, and i am likely clueless about the nuances with this issue. I welcome comments by more knowledgeable people. but as far as I understand it, if a trap is lost, it keeps attracting lobsters or whatever and the creatures that get in there just die.
    It’s good that there is an effort to remove these traps— but is there anything in the works to prevent or at least mitigate this kind of collateral damage in the future ?
    It is the interest of the fisher people to reduce the number of lobsters or crabs or whatever dying in ghost fishing gear after all.
    I hope that people who know much more than I do about this issue will take some time to inform not only myself, ( I am incidental after all ) but the general public.

    • Biodegradable traps.
      They are very expensive.
      The do have escape hatches so the small ones can get out.

  2. When walking the various beaches on MV, we spend half our time pull up ghost rope and plastic debris. Varying in size from walk to walk, (I assume like others) we bring it home for curbside trash pick up.

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