By Priscilla Feral, originally featured in The Stamford Advocate

As the adage says, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” Given the environmental damage caused by as many as 1 million discarded lobster traps littering the bottom of Long Island Sound, we applaud efforts by a group of Connecticut environmental organizations over the past year to retrieve 1,000 derelict coated-wire cages, many still actively trapping and killing marine wildlife. 

But let’s get real: Those removals account for a mere 0.1 percent of an ongoing disaster created by local fishers who have been allowed to despoil the marine environment, with reckless abandon and without any penalty, for decades. Even more galling, the federally funded cleanup crews are required by CT state statute to contact the previous owners of those ghost pots to see if they want them back. Seriously? 

It’s bad enough that the fishing industry continues to wreak havoc on a sustainable, healthy marine ecosystem. Worse is knowing that you can litter the Sound with death traps without looking over your shoulder and then get a free chance to do it all over again. It’s long past time for CT DEEP to update its regulations, or ask for legislation, that would give it teeth to enforce what should be accepted practice for any business: Clean up after yourselves; our public waters are not a dumping ground for fishers. 

The estimate of 1 million abandoned lobster traps—which works out to about 1 per acre across the Sound—is based on calculations made by the Cornell Cooperative Extension Suffolk County. CCE’s Marine Program totaled the number of tags issued from 1984 to 2006 and then used a loss per year estimate of 5 to 15 percent to arrive at 800,000 to 1 million traps lost or abandoned.  

According to Justin Davis, Assistant Director of CT DEEP’s Marine Fisheries Program, many local lobstermen kept their traps during the off-season in “wet storage”—it was cheaper to stash them underwater than on dry land. When the lobster population crashed two decades ago, due to ever-warming waters caused by fossil-fuel emissions, as well as toxic pesticide and fertilizer runoff, “the gear just got left out there,” says Davis. 

Our precious Sound is plagued by a global problem. As much as 1 million tons of lost fishing gear foul the oceans every year, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which adds that at least 10% of all marine litter is estimated to be made up of fishing detritus—the countless miles of abandoned fishing lines, ropes, nets, traps, hooks and other items that ensnare all manner of marine wildlife, from highly endangered North Atlantic right whales to the few lobsters that still survive in local waters. CCE data shows that 20 percent of the derelict lobster traps recovered had one or more lobsters in them. 

Cornell’s Derelict Lobster Trap Removal Projects have retrieved 21,000 traps over the past 12 years from New York waters, says Scott Curatolo-Wagemann, CCE Senior Educator. He adds that CCE will spend 2024 doing side-scanning sonar to get a better idea of where “hot spots” of derelict traps may be located and is waiting on funds to be granted to do more retrievals in 2025.  

While these retrieval efforts are laudable, the pace is simply unacceptable. Long Island Sound cannot remain an indiscriminate killing ground for sea creatures. There’s no time to waste in diffusing the Sound’s lobster-trap time bomb. 

Even if Connecticut and New York’s environmental protection agencies have lost the chance to hold former marine polluters accountable, they need to step up funding for larger-scale cleanup efforts and make sure that area fishers are responsible for any future damage they cause due to lost gear and “ghost fishing.”  

Better yet, ban commercial fishing and trawling in Long Island Sound. Put the fishers to work cleaning up the deadly traps they’ve left behind for generations. Only then will our Sound—once considered among the richest, most productive estuaries in the world—have a chance to recover even a small part of its former bounty and beauty. 

Priscilla Feral is president of Friends of Animals, an animal advocacy organization based in Darien, CT;