From nets to kilowatts

Recycling program turns an environmental hazard into electricity.

Salmon fishermen haul in a catch in Alaska. Fishing nets are expensive to buy and difficult and expensive to dispose of. A net might weigh four tons, and some landfills won’t accept them because they may damage landfill machinery.

At the Covanta Energy-from-Waste facility in Preston, Conn., a 30-foot wall of garbage towers above 10 tons of tangled fishing gear. Fishing nets, ropes, lobster traps, and buoys from the fishing port of Provincetown, Mass., lie on the floor where trash is dumped for disposal. These massive nets and other gear – some pulled from the depths of the Atlantic Ocean – may look like trash, but they’re about to become something more useful: electricity.

A giant mechanical crane pulls apart clumps of the fishing gear along with plastic bags filled with municipal solid waste. Then it tosses them into one of two continuously burning incinerators to generate energy that powers an estimated 12,000 Connecticut homes around the clock.

Turning old fishing gear into an energy resource is part of a program that was launched in 2008 as a means to help reduce marine debris in oceans.

Along the Northeast coast, seven ports in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Rhode Island have been outfitted with 40-cubic-yard dumpsters where fishermen can dispose of their used gear free of charge.

Once the dumpsters are full, the gear is transported to a nearby recycling facility where metals are removed from crab pots and lobster traps, and nets and ropes are sheared for easier disposal.

The gear is then burned in incinerators that generate steam, turning turbines that produce electricity. Each ton of fishing gear is able to generate enough electricity to power one home for 25 days, estimates Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer for Covanta Energy Corp. based in Fairfield, N.J.

The company has 38 facilities worldwide that annually convert 16 million tons of trash into 8 million megawatt hours of energy and produce 10 billion pounds of steam to sell to industries for use in heating and air conditioning.

The fishing gear project, known as the Fishing for Energy program, is a partnership among Covanta, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, and Schnitzer Steel, which chops up the nets to make them more manageable and removes metals from the discarded fishing equipment and recycles them.

It’s an expansion of a similar program, Nets to Energy, which was launched on the island of Oahu, Hawaii, in 2006 after a series of NOAA marine debris cleanups revealed large volumes of derelict or discarded fishing gear at sea. The gear posed a threat to coral reefs and put endangered monk seals at risk.

Because of the limited landfill space in Hawaii and the magnitude of gear found, NOAA decided to try to circumvent fishermen’s disposing of old gear at sea by buying a dumpster where they could dispose of it at no cost. NOAA reached out to Covanta and to Schnitzer Steel, which agreed to turn the gear into energy at no cost.

And so an economic burden to fishermen and a threat to the marine ecosystem has become a low-cost source of energy. The program is the first of its kind, says Megan Forbes, national communications coordinator for the marine debris program at NOAA.

Although there is no quantitative data on the total volume of marine debris dumped into the ocean each year, approximately 52 metric tons of foreign and domestic marine debris washes up along the shores of the Hawaiian archipelago annually, according to NOAA.

The debris found along the shores of Hawaii are the result of currents in the north Pacific Ocean, says Ms. Forbes.

Although disposing of fishing equipment at sea is illegal, there are several reasons why it can end up in the ocean:

• Fishing crews may lose nets or rope because of storms or have nets washed off boat decks while nets are being repaired at sea.

• Gear stored on shore may be accidentally swept back into the ocean.

It’s expensive to get rid of old gear, says Holly Bamford, director of the NOAA Marine Debris Program. Rather than pay a tipping fee, some fishermen end up dumping gear at sea.

Costs aside, trying to find a landfill that will even take fishing gear is another roadblock for fishermen trying to dispose of damaged or unwanted equipment legally, says Mark Patterson, harbor master of Scituate, Mass.

While some landfills will process fishing gear, others won’t accept it because of its sheer volume and weight – some nets can weigh up to four tons and measure the length of six football fields, notes Ms. Bamford.

Beyond its size, fishing gear can also be difficult to process. Although many fishermen are able to recycle lobster traps and crab pots, “nets and fishing gear damaged some of the equipment they were using [at the landfill],” says Mr. Patterson. “That was a bigger part of the problem than the costs.”

Because there wasn’t a way to dispose of it, nets and gear would often end up in fishermen’s backyards, notes Dave Haley.

He and a fellow Scituate fisherman, Frank Mirarchi, have kept a record of the marine debris they’ve encountered during commercial fishing trips in the Atlantic during the past three years.

After they continued to get stuck in nets or found old gear almost daily, they started patrolling areas in Massachusetts Bay to help raise awareness of the issue in hopes of finding a solution.

Now, Scituate’s port has a Fishing for Energy bin to collect any abandoned nets and equipment that fishermen may find at sea. Since 2006, the duo have recovered an estimated five tons of discarded fishing gear as well as other trash.

“There’s just so much junk,” says Mr. Haley, who now serves as Scituate’s marine debris coordinator for Fishing for Energy. “We’ve called it a chronic problem. It seems like it’s always there.”

This “chronic problem,” often unseen from the ocean’s surface, poses a big threat to marine life.

“When nets [and] traps roll around after storms, they basically scar up the sea floor, impacting critical habitat for various marine species,” says Bamford.

Another effect of abandoned gear is “ghost fishing.” This is when discarded gill nets or traps continue to capture marine species.

“When these [nets] get lost, they continue do what they are made to do ... and if nobody is tending to these traps, they continue to fish and pull resources from the environment,” says Bamford.

Over the past year, the Fishing for Energy program has collected 305,626 tons pounds of gear from seven permanent installations in ports in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and New Jersey, as well as from five temporary dumpsters in Massachusetts, New York, and Rhode Island ports.

In the future, the program might expand to Maine, Florida, Oregon, and additional locations in New York, says Thomas Barry, assistant director of marine programs for the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.

Removing the gear, Bamford says, is the first step in limiting the amount of marine debris that ends up in the ocean.

The next step: prevention. By providing bins for collection and a program that converts nets into energy, “there is a place where fishermen can go to dispose of gear for free,” she says. “It’s a big incentive – an incentive to prevent marine debris from entering the ocean.”

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