Ghost Fishing, Nitrogen Pollution, Rubber Debris Targeted in Local Efforts to Clean Up the Sound


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Twenty years ago, rising water temperatures, nitrogen pollution and disease wiped out the lobster population in Long Island Sound.

Lobstermen picked up and left, in many cases leaving their traps behind.

But on the floor of the Sound, tens of thousands of traps are still working, catching the few remaining lobsters along with other species.

It’s called ghost fishing.

Scott Curatolo-Wagemann, a marine biologist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension in Long Island, N.Y., explained the phenomenon Thursday during a webinar hosted by the Long Island Sound Coastal Watershed Network.

His program, which has removed 20,000 abandoned lobster pots on the New York side of the Sound in the last 11 years, is helping Connecticut officials start a program, Curatolo-Wagemann said.

It may require a switch in strategy, because the Sound near Long Island has a very soft bottom, but near Connecticut it’s hard and rocky, he said.

“About 25 percent of these pots have lobster or fin fish in them,” Curatolo-Wagemann said. “We’re working with Connecticut to see how often the things are ghost fishing and continuing to degrade these species.”

Removing marine debris through collaboration is the strategy of the Coastal Watershed Network, which drives grassroots efforts to combat pollution in communities along the Sound.

Backed by Citizens Campaign for the Environment,  Save the Sound and  The Nature Conservancy, the network gets financial support from the Long Island Sound Funders Collaborative  and the Long Island Sound Study. 

The webinar on plastic pollution was the first of three scheduled this spring to educate citizens and inspire action. A May 12 webinar will focus on nitrogen pollution and the one slated for June 16 will focus on fecal bacteria.

It’s about educating people and changing behavior, said Adrienne Esposito of Citizens Campaign for the Environment, who hosted the webinar. CCE works with coalitions in New York and Connecticut to identify environmental concerns and push government agencies to change policies.

“We are a grassroots group – we can’t sit around and wait for government to solve our problems. We have to get the public to work on an answer,” Esposito said. “We have to make people think about what materials they are using, and then choose not to use them.” 

Plastic bag bans in New York and Connecticut have significantly reduced the number found on beaches, for example.

“Paper and plastic products account for 40 percent of the waste stream,” Esposito said, and much of it ends up in waterways. “We need to change our ‘make, take, toss’ society. We need to create a circular economy, where we return materials to the supply chain so we are able to use them again as consumers.”

Thin-film plastic, such as bags used to gather produce in the grocery store or protect clothing picked up from the dry cleaner, is a good example, Esposito said.

“They are very lightweight but they contribute a significant amount of plastic to the waste stream, and they can’t be recycled,” she said. “Stores put out containers to collect them. People should use (the containers.) The bags are recycled to make decking and outdoor furniture.”

A practice called extended producer responsibility is “a hot topic” in New York and Connecticut now, Esposito said. It shifts the burden of reusing materials from municipalities to manufacturers.

“We need the producers to care about their products – not just getting them on the shelves and getting you to buy them, but about the entirety of the product lifespan,” Esposito said.

Connecticut, for example, was the first state in the nation to pass a mattress recycling law that requires manufacturers to collect them and dissemble them for the reusable wood, foam, cotton and steel springs.

New York has laws that require the recycling of electronic equipment and rechargeable batteries, and programs to collect paint and unused prescription drugs will begin this year.

Collaboration among public and private entities, and between governments, can be effective.

Last May the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that a University of Connecticut study had identified an improvement in Long Island Sound water quality. 

Nearly 50 million pounds of nitrogen pollution are being kept out of the Sound each year, which the EPA attributed to “successful programs in Connecticut and New York to upgrade wastewater treatment plants to remove nitrogen before treated sewage is discharged into the Sound.”

Often such collaboration is the result of citizens demanding action, members of the Long Island Sound Coastal Watershed Network said.

During Thursday’s webinar, someone wrote in about shreds of rubber that repeatedly wash ashore at Hammonasset Beach in Madison, Connecticut’s largest shoreline park. The person wanted to know where to send samples of the rubber so it can be traced to a source.

Members of the network said they would help find a laboratory that can do it.

Cleaning up Long Island Sound will require a lot more work, Esposito said, “but progress is being made. There is a focus on the problem and answers are being formulated.”

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Angela Carella

For 36 years prior to joining the Connecticut Examiner, Angela Carella was a beat reporter, investigative reporter, editor and columnist for the Stamford Advocate. Carella reports on Stamford and Fairfield County. T: 203 722 6811.