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DAILY CATCH

Meet the ‘rope broker’ who cleans up the Cape’s seafloor and supplies artists with the salvaged goods

Laura Ludwig will go to most any length to find new uses for rope, nets, buoys, traps, and other equipment hauled from the depths

Miss Lilly returns with some salvaged goods.
Miss Lilly returns with some salvaged goods.Kay Matschullat

When Miss Lilly tied up to MacMillan Pier in Provincetown one April afternoon, a bystander might have been curious. Why had the lobster boat been out on Cape Cod Bay, when the bay was officially closed to lobster fishing through mid-May? The spring closure is meant to help critically endangered North Atlantic right whales safely passage north by reducing the risk of their entanglement in lobstering lines.

And how to explain the cargo offloaded by Captain Mike Rego and his crew? Twenty-eight empty barnacle-encrusted lobster traps, most mangled and caked with sponge, and piles of scummy rope and blackened steel cable. And why was the woman on the pier so excited to see Miss Lilly’s deplorable mound of “daily catch”?

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Each spring, for as long as the right whale closure lasts, Provincetown’s Center for Coastal Studies, with the help of local fishermen and their vessels, organizes the recovery of lost and abandoned fishing gear from the seafloor of Cape Cod Bay, a project that Laura Ludwig, the woman above, began in 2013. Ludwig, who over the years has built a following as a “rope broker” by lobstermen and artists alike, will go to most any length to find new uses for rope, nets, buoys, lobster traps, slime eel traps, and other equipment hauled from the depths.

Laura Ludwig, in gray, and artist Annie Lewandowski inspect rope.
Laura Ludwig, in gray, and artist Annie Lewandowski inspect rope.Kay Matschullat from Media Art Xploration

Increasingly, artists have been contacting Ludwig for fished-out objects, sometimes even before they are pulled from the sea, wanting them for installations that celebrate the ocean as well as call attention to diverse harms to marine life. Noted Marina Zurkow, a Hudson Valley media artist who is intending to use CCS’s salvaged goods for an exhibit tied to an environmentally-themed mini-golf course on the Brooklyn waterfront, “Laura is a force!”

Ludwig estimates that the four participating lobster boats this season — Miss Lilly, Kestrel, Adventure, and Resolve — will likely grapple up 8 to 12 tons of sunken fishing gear, of which roughly 5 tons of gear will find new life. “This year,” she said, “nearly all of the recovered rope, nets, buoys, and possibly even some of the wire traps will be used by artists.” Approximately 200 raised lobster traps will be either returned to owners, recycled as scrap metal, or burned for energy.

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“As long as there’s lobster fishing, and it’s rope-based fishing, there’s an issue of what to do with retired, end-of-life gear. It’s a massive issue,” said Ludwig. “My feeling is that, if I can get it out of the ocean, that’s the best thing, and if I can keep it out of an incineration plant, that’s even better.” The program this year is funded by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation Fishing for Energy partnership, which provides no-cost ways for commercial fishermen to dispose of end-of-life gear.

For the climate-change mini-golf course that Two Trees is creating on the East River, Zurkow and co-artists of the collective Dear Climate will be designing Hole #2 in the form of a whale fall feast. When a whale carcass falls to the ocean bottom, Zurkow explained, “it provides an enormous food bonanza for everything from octopi to hagfish to osedax,” tiny worms that feed on whale bones. Visitors walking through an imagined whale carcass will encounter these and other whale dependent creatures, along with the fishing industry’s seafloor trash.

“Oceans are not our native environment. I’ve been trying for new ways to connect to a space that’s very hard to connect to,” Zurkow said. “For instance, we may love the North Atlantic right whale, and not realize the codependent species — an entire system — that would disappear with their extinction.” Salvaged debris is a way “to raise awareness” about the ocean, and a way to “reuse materials instead of incinerating them.” The exhibition is slated to open early summer.

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Artist Annie Lewandowski inspects the goods.
Artist Annie Lewandowski inspects the goods.Kay Matschullat from Media Art Xploration

CCS’s ocean material is also on its way to artists Annie Lewandowski and Kyle McDonald, who will include it in their interactive show “Siren — Listening to Another Species on Earth.” Through visuals, objects, lighting, and sound, “Siren” will pay homage to humpback whales, their creative intelligence and diverse songs, while also bearing witness to “this huge problem of entanglement — 650,000 cetaceans get caught in gear each year,” noted composer-musician Lewandowski.

The Cornell University artist was so drawn to the songs of humpbacks in high school, she added them to her playlists. The more she has learned about the species from Roger and Katy Payne, who first recorded humpbacks singing 50 years ago, she said, the more connected she has felt to “these mammalian kin of ours.” While “Siren” will explore new ways of visualizing their songs, the show’s inclusion of ocean debris will portray the harsh environment humpbacks live in. And still “they keep singing,” noted the artist.

“Siren” will open this fall at “The Neuroverse” festival in New York, which is put on by Media Art Xploration, the group that commissioned “Siren,” and later travel to Cornell to be part of “The Whale Listening Project.”

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It’s fitting that CCS’s ocean cleanup is finding artists who think about whales as much as Ludwig and Stormy Mayo, her husband, do. Mayo, director of CCS’s Right Whale Ecology program, is known for devising successful methods for freeing whales entangled in ropes.

Ludwig’s own work on behalf of whales began in 2000, when she joined the Maine Department of Marine Resources as the state’s first Whale Plan Coordinator. After she became project manager for the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation in 2006, data she provided added weight to research showing that when whales are foraging and have their mouths open, they are particularly at risk for getting caught in lobstermen’s groundlines, the polypropylene ropes then used to string traps together.

“I called them the golden arches of the seafloor, because they were made to float to avoid the rocky bottom,” recalled Ludwig.

Within a few years, both in Maine and Massachusetts, float rope was replaced by sink rope to protect whales. Ludwig began GOMLF’s Bottom Line Project, a federally-funded program that collected newly obsolete rope from fishermen. “We had such a surplus, we were desperate to get rid of it,” she recalled. So she began giving it to artists. Orly Genger, internationally known for her rope sculptures, would end up purchasing over 320,000 pounds of rope for several major installations.

At that time, too, a rope-braiding company came to Ludwig with the idea of using discarded float rope for weaving doormats. Today, these colorful mats are so popular, said Ludwig, that some manufacturers use new rope, not authentic salvaged lobstering rope, as they might claim.

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“Read the fine print,” warned Ludwig. She’s glad, at least, that for as long as that older salty rope lasted, it was never sent to landfill but found new life.

Ann Parson can be reached at parson-a@outlook.com.