‘Ghost Gear’ + Climate Change = Bad News for Lobsters

Researchers find that thousands of lost traps sitting on the ocean floor will destroy lobsters’ habitats as cyclones become more frequent.
(Photo: Brian Skerry/'National Geographic'/Getty Images)
May 5, 2016· 1 MIN READ
John R. Platt covers the environment, wildlife, and technology and for TakePart, Scientific American, Audubon, and other publications.

Every year, ghosts kill an estimated 630,000 spiny lobsters in the waters around the Florida Keys.

No, there’s no ectoplasm involved. The ghosts are what is known as “ghost gear”—derelict lobster traps and other fishing equipment that have broken free and drifted away from their original location. About a million of these old traps have accumulated over the years, according to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Most of them have broken into smaller pieces, but that takes about a year to happen, on average. Until then, they continue to catch thousands of lobsters, which die in their wooden confines. Right now, about 85,000 derelict traps are ghost fishing in the Florida Keys.

The problem is going to get worse in the coming years. According to a study published in Marine Policy, climate change will likely increase the strength of tropical cyclones in the region, which will result in more lobster traps being lost—as many as 11 million over the next 60 years. That, the paper estimates, could kill up to 38 million lobsters during that same period.

That’s just the direct effect. Meanwhile, the ocean currents strengthened by the cyclones will push all of this derelict gear—including planks, lines, and concrete ballast—around the seabed, damaging habitats that are essential to rocky lobsters and other species. The paper estimates that this could affect up to 3 million square meters of habitat.

Amy Uhrin, chief scientist with the Marine Debris Division of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the study’s author, said such damage has been observed in seagrass beds and the limestone substrate that supports sponges, coral, and algae. “Derelict traps will often break apart when they collide with hard coral reef structure,” she said. A single trap can cause tissue abrasion and break up the soft and hard corals, sponges, and other species that form essential habitat for many marine species. The cumulative effect of so many traps, she said, is much worse.

Although the study looked only at spiny lobsters, Uhrin said many other species could be affected. “My colleagues at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission observed 66 fish species and 13 invertebrate species as bycatch in ghost traps,” she said. That includes yellowtail snapper, one of the most valuable fishery species in the region.

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Florida has several programs in place to remove some of this derelict gear and to minimize dereliction in the first place, but Uhrin said they will not be able to keep up if gear loss increases as she projects. “New management options must be explored,” she said, adding that the first step should be to consult with lobster fishers to see how they adapt to impending storms and might respond to possible regulations.

Researchers also need to explore how ghost gear and climate change will work together to affect fisheries in other regions—for example, the lobster industry in the Gulf of Maine. “Any fishery where the mechanisms of gear loss include storms and where the region is exposed to extreme wind events that equal or rival hurricane force may certainly experience similar issues,” Uhrin said.