In recent years, the double-whammy of plastic trash and overfishing has drawn more attention to the plight of the world’s oceans. I was made aware of this mounting problem several years ago when I stayed at a remote beach town in northeastern Brazil. Plastic bottles, furniture and sheaths of fishnets had washed up in an area where the nearest town or city was scores of miles away. The image of those fishnets reminds me that the dangers to marine life continue even if a global moratorium on fishing kept every single boat in port.
These threats are ongoing because of fishing equipment, mostly nets, that are dumped into the oceans daily. This “ghost gear” will remain in the waters for centuries, continuing to kill marine life.
To that end, last month over 40 delegates from various organizations convened in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, to lay the groundwork for the new Global Ghost Gear Initiative, or GGGI. This multi-stakeholder effort, which is bringing together NGOs, industry leaders and intergovernmental organizations, is focused on finding innovative solutions to the growing problem of plastic debris the fishing industry loses, abandons and discards daily. The cost in money and resources is too large to ignore: United Kingdom-based World Animal Protection estimates that over 640,000 tons of fishing gear, mostly nylon or plastic, ends up dumped in the world's oceans and seas each year.
The results are lost economic opportunity and more danger to threatened marine species as this equipment -- including nets, traps and pots -- harms and kills marine life even after fishermen decide such gear is no longer useful. Ongoing trends in the global marketplace are not helping. The disposable society in which we live leads most of us to view plastic waste in any form as worthless. Meanwhile the growing middle class worldwide is demanding more seafood, much of which is caught by independent fishermen far down the global supply chain. More NGOs are dedicated to cleaning up the oceans of this killer trash, and a few companies are collecting this trash and recycling it into new products. But as a group they are going into what is akin to a massive gunfight with the equivalent of a slingshot. The complex problem of ghost gear has many moving parts — and more cooperation is needed.
Therefore GGGI is on a quest, according to its most recent mission statement, “to create safer, cleaner oceans by collecting evidence to understand the problem of ghost fishing gear in order to drive effective and sustainable fishing on a global scale.”
Evidence, in fact, is where GGGI must start some heavy lifting. As is the case of any new global initiative, may questions fester over how this initiative is going to start. Is it outreach? Communication? Government lobbying? Partnering with business? According to many of the delegates who spent those two days in Ljubljana hammering out an agenda, the organization will have to start with gathering data. At first such a task may sound like a dry and tepid response to a pressing environmental and economic problem. The word at this conference, however, was that in order to make the case and create a sense of urgency, reliable data on how much ghost gear is floating or moored in our oceans is needed. Many of the estimates on how much ghost gear exists in the oceans, along with numbers of wildlife lost annually, are based on samples taken in a few spots around the word. Business and governments, however, will want to know more before they commit resources to this continuing problem.
Likewise, the question of how to solve the ghost gear crisis rests on how this organization will conduct outreach, and who will be held accountable. The common perception is that fishermen are creating this problem by carelessly dumping their unwanted equipment into the water. The truth, however, is much more nuanced and complicated. Tonny Wagey, senior scientist with the Indonesian government’s Ministry of Marine affairs, gave me his country's perspective during a conversation we had as the GGGI meeting wrapped up.
“Environmentally and politically, the problems are the lack of understanding, awareness and political will to deal with this,” Wagey said. “The main culprit is illegal fishing. After all, the local and small fishermen don’t want to lose their nets because they can’t afford it as they would have to pay two or three months of their wages. It is the big companies that are often responsible, especially those who are coming from outside our country to fish illegally.”
Wagey’s perspective is representative of Indonesia, the world’s fourth largest seafood producer with 4.8 million tons caught, processed and sold annually. Hence a risk GGGI confronts is the developed versus developing nations schism that is all too common. Considering the fact emerging economies such as Indonesia and Thailand are among the world’s biggest fishing producers, the challenge GGGI will find is boosting cooperation between all stakeholders in all countries. It will not be easy.
As one delegate explained to me, it is tough to come up with solid regulations and frameworks when so much of what bedevils the fishing industry is the lack of structure. Regulations, or lack thereof, are one issue; the dearth of good oceanographic charts for fishermen is another problem. A boat may be going about its daily business, only to graze a reef or rock outcropping no one knew about, even if that knowledgeable fisherman followed generations before him into this line of work. Hence one of GGGI’s biggest challenges will be convincing these companies to provide their suppliers with the tools necessary to make fishing safer and less destructive -- and take responsibility for the treating the oceans both as a resource and a garbage dump.
What is on GGGI’s side is the mounting size of the problem. I sure did not need convincing. During the second day of the conference, Aquafil, one of the main sponsors of this gathering and a nylon manufacturer that has ventured into carpet and ghost gear recycling, took me on a tour of one of its warehouses. About a 45-minute drive from Ljubljana, close to the Italian border, is a former cotton mill almost bursting at the seams with nets gathered from around the world. Bales after bales of used and discarded fishing nets — each weighing four metric tons, mind you — offered a visual that was disheartening and yet inspiring at the same time. Seeing all those stacked nets reminded me of the daunting statistics I heard over the previous 36 hours.
Some of the ideas bandied around this conference may seem too simple, yet may offer some good first steps. Color-coding nets for easy identification could be a way to identify wayward fishing companies, and of course, tagging nets to make their identity more seamless is an option, too. Collection spots for nets in heavily-trafficked fisheries are a start; meanwhile, more aggressive education programs cannot be overlooked. Better design always leads to more sustainable solutions, and of course technology, from maps from a company such as Google, as well as apps, can help stall the mess we are making of our oceans.
In the end, if industry -- including the commercial suppliers, processors and retailers -- becomes involved, GGGI will score a fast start. In an age where a “tell all” video timely posted online can cause a company gigantic headaches, no business wants to be embarrassed — or lose customers who over time are more interested in where their food is sourced. The time to start on this problem, sadly, was yesterday: But based on the cooperation and ideas I saw coming out of Ljubljana, GGGI is on its way -- which in the long run will save an industry that at the moment is sabotaging itself by only looking at short term profits.
Image credit: Aquafil, Dutch Shark Society, Leon Kaye
Disclosure: Aquafil covered the travel costs associated with my attendance at the GGGI conference.