Lawmakers pass bill to address abandoned fishing gear, with limitations

By: - July 14, 2023 5:00 am

Abandoned or derelict gear can cause harm by not only killing local fish and other wildlife, but also by damaging the underwater plants and structures they call home. (Andrew Burton | Getty Images)

New Hampshire’s marine wildlife may soon be rescued from “ghost gear” haunting coastal waters, thanks to a bill passed by the Legislature last month. But it won’t be by individuals working on their own to find and remove abandoned gear this summer, as some House members had hoped. 

The version of House Bill 442 that passed last month directs Fish and Game to report to lawmakers by September with a strategic cleanup plan for derelict fishing gear, traps, and nets that have been abandoned by their owners but continue to ensnare fish, lobsters, and other marine organisms, leading to their death. 

According to nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, a single abandoned net kills an average of 1,700 fish and four seabirds. Abandoned or derelict gear can cause harm by not only killing local fish and other wildlife, but also by damaging the underwater plants and structures they call home, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says. 

Some House members hoped to allow individual divers to remove gear on their own, in addition to a larger effort by the state. Instead, a Senate amendment requires Fish and Game to coordinate with volunteers who are interested in removing those hazards.

The bill was passed last month during the final House and Senate legislative sessions.

There are several ways fishing gear can become derelict. This includes entanglement with boats or other gear, and failure by fishermen to remove broken or deteriorated gear that’s no longer useful or wanted.  

Northfield Republican Rep. Gregory Hill, the bill’s primary sponsor, emphasized that wildlife is actively being harmed by a lack of state action on ghost fishing. 

“The concern of the diving community … is that there are animals dying continuously from that derelict fishing gear,” he said during negotiations with the Senate over its proposed changes to the legislation.

The bill was originally intended to license scuba divers to catch lobster, which is currently illegal. A Senate amendment instead transformed it into legislation that addresses derelict fishing gear. 

House committee members conceded to the Senate’s changes, creating a plan that requires Fish and Game to coordinate volunteer events at least three times each of the next two years to locate, remove, and dispose of abandoned gear. They also agreed to scrap the sections allowing individual divers to move or dispose of derelict gear, in order to ensure that the bill would not be killed in the Senate. 

Some House members, such as Deerfield Republican Rep. James Spillane, felt that individual divers should be allowed to mark derelict gear and free trapped wildlife as soon as possible.  

“Sadly we aren’t going to be able to save the animals trapped in the summer this year,” Spillane said during negotiations with the Senate. 

Senate negotiators argued they need more information before passing a bill that enables divers to touch traps on their own, which is currently illegal. State law prohibits anyone other than the gear owner or a conservation officer from interfering with traps. 

Capt. Michael Eastman of New Hampshire Fish and Game suggested that divers can still report ghost fishing gear, which a conservation officer can then remove. 

The House and Senate did come to a compromise that creates greater accountability to lawmakers for Fish and Game. The final version of the bill requires the department to submit its plan for the new cleanup program to the Legislature by Sept. 30. 

The bill, now headed to Gov. Chris Sununu’s desk, appropriates $100,000 for the cleanup efforts.

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Amanda Pirani
Amanda Pirani

Amanda was a newsroom intern with the New Hampshire Bulletin. She previously worked as a news editor for The New Hampshire, the University of New Hampshire’s student-run newspaper. While there, she reported on campus affairs, politics, and public health. A New Hampshire native, Amanda has learned to appreciate the unique political culture of her home state and brings experience from political campaigns. She plans to continue her degree in political science as a rising junior at the University of Michigan.