What made “the blob” in Cape Cod Bay?
By Doreen Leggett
Captain Mike Rego was on his lobster boat the Miss Lilly at the pier in Provincetown Harbor on a raw, blustery fall day when a man approached and grabbed a line.
Rego smiled, yelled hello and told him to take whatever he wanted. The fellow picked up some Jonah crabs that were soaking in the water, as he had many times before, said thanks and was on his way.
Shrugging, Rego said that just like his father and fishermen before them, you help out when you can. He spent much of his childhood on the close knit pier.
“I grew up with all those guys, there aren’t many of them left,” Rego said. “As a kid I played up here all the time.”
Rego said he was down at MacMillan Wharf the other day and was talking to another longtime fisherman, Beau Gribbin, about how his dad and the other fishermen in the busy 1970s used to joke with the youngsters and say that one day they’d be the old guard. They laughed.
“Oh my God, we are those guys now,” Rego remembers saying.
A lot has changed. The dragger fleet, where Rego got his start, is much smaller than the more than 50 boats that called the port home decades ago.
Partnering with scientific organizations wasn’t common then either. That’s something Rego began doing close to 10 years ago with the Center for Coastal Studies, mapping and picking up ghost gear. He doesn’t feel like he is working for “the enemy.”
“If you can work together maybe you can come up with solutions and maybe you can stay working,” he said.
Rego has been lobstering for 20 years and is once again doing his part to protect the fleet and industry by signing onto a study to identify what has caused an area of low oxygen and a lobster die-off in Cape Cod Bay two years running.
“I’m hoping it doesn’t grow and grow and pretty soon the bay is like a desert,” Rego said.
Lobstermen were first to notice the problem. Beth Casoni, executive director of the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association, remembers that moment in September 2019, when what has been come to be known as “the blob” killed hundreds of pounds of catch.
“My phones were lighting up,” Casoni said. “It just killed everything that was in the pot.”
The Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries got involved right away, with staff joining other scientific organizations such as Center for Coastal Studies to conduct research.
The nickname “the blob” stuck because it seemed to be a defined area or mass.
As winds picked up that fall the problem disappeared but everyone knew more work needed to be done.
Nick Lowell, owner of Lowell Instruments, had done work with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, using environmental monitors on lobster traps, static gear serving as a site to record temperature, salinity and currents.
Lowell’s data loggers mount inside the lobster traps and can also record dissolved oxygen levels and temperature to help provide clues to what is happening.
“It was very concerning because it was the first time anyone had ever seen that in Cape Cod Bay,” Lowell said.
This year researchers wanted the information in real time, so Lowell added a blue tooth radio and depth tracker.
“Every time a lobsterman hauls the trap it automatically transfers the data to the deck data hub,” Lowell said. “They see it first on their display.”
Data collection is very expensive and having lobstermen who are on the water every day collecting information is extremely valuable, Lowell said, adding that the data is then passed on to the state and other researchers.
When the Massachusetts Lobstermen’s Association applied to the state for a $99,000 grant to figure out the problem, Lowell’s sensors were front and center. So was Mike Rego.
Casoni reached out to five lobstermen representing different areas of Cape Cod Bay and Rego was happy to be involved.
He picked up the equipment in Sandwich and has used it since late June. He’ll wrap up right about now.
Each of the five lobstermen picked up five sensors and Rego zip-ties his to traps in various lines. They have worked as a charm so far, he said, although every once in a while he does have to clean them off.
Originally he hadn’t seen himself as a lobsterman. He is a fourth-generation fisherman and the first in the family to go for crustaceans.
His great grandfather was a trap fisherman. They never met, but he heard stories of the heydays when the harbor was full of weirs.
“The most amazing thing was the prices they used to get – half a cent a pound,” Rego said.
Rego’s stepfather, Tony Thomas, who he considers his dad, and his grandfather, also Tony Thomas, were both draggermen. His father owned the Plymouth Bell and the Richard and Arnold, which is one of the few Eastern-rigged draggers (Rego’s favorite) still around.
His father also ran and crewed on several boats and when Rego turned 12 that’s what he started doing as well.
“I knew as soon as I went that was what I wanted to do, I don’t know why, just something about it,” Rego said.
Back then there were four or five guys on a dragger, all of them older than Rego, and he learned a lot. The family names were familiar, and often father and son shared first names as well as last.
“My dad had nicknames for everyone, made it easier,” Rego said with a laugh.
In the late 1980s it wasn’t unusual to catch 13,000 pounds of cod on a trip.
“I’m glad I got to see those days,” Rego said.
The decline was sudden as a raft of stringent regulations were passed and hit Provincetown harder than other communities. Many were left with catch limits they couldn’t earn a living on.
By the time Rego graduated from high school the port looked very different.
“At that point a lot of guys were getting out. They saw the handwriting on the wall,” Rego said.
He had already decided he was going to skip college and go fishing, but had to spend some time banging nails because of the lack of crew spots. It didn’t go well.
“I’m miserable being off the water,” he said.
When Robert Young asked him if he wanted to go lobstering he was in. He did that for almost a decade.
Then bought his own boat, the Lunacy.
“I figured it was time,” Rego said.
Soon after he bought the Miss Lilly, named after his 14-year old daughter who is an eighth grader at Provincetown.
In recent years he has noticed changes in the water.
“A couple times the bottom was just dank,” he said.
Rego said it seemed like there was more mung than usual and in deep water too. When the lobster traps come up he has to run his knife over them to get the green growth off, it is so thick.
“It sits on the bottom like a sludge,” he said.
Tracy Pugh, who works for the state Division of Marine Fisheries, said the information the sensors have turned up is proving helpful already: When oxygen levels dropped in one section of the bay, there was an alert so people could move their gear.
They mapped the extent of the 2020 blob, which can move depending on ocean currents. 2019 was worse than 2020, although Pugh said at least one fisherman out of Sandwich did have one day this year when he brought up dead lobsters.
In early to mid-August a decline in oxygen levels is not uncommon, she said. Since the water stratifies in the summer – warmer water on the top, cooler on the bottom – the oxygen-richer top layers don’t mix. When winds spring up they move the water to help mitigate the lack of oxygen on the bottom.
Why does the bottom have less oxygen? Is it because of what is happening on land - pollution or excess nitrogen causing large algal blooms that then die and use up all the available oxygen?
“And what was it about 2019 that made it get so much worse?” wonders Pugh, adding that some have said climate change may be playing an unwelcome role.
Those are some of the questions Rego wants answered. Casoni wants those answers as well.
“That is a long term goal – to peel back that onion,” she said.
All involved are hoping the program continues.
“What I have been really happy about is because of the study fleet we have so much more information and that is going to be really critical to figuring out what is going on,” said Pugh.
Rego says he is learning new and different things about the water he relies on for his livelihood and has been Provincetown’s backyard for generations.
“I want to make sure we have a sustainable fishery for years to come, so the next generation – whether it be my daughter or anyone else – can make a life on the water.”