By Elizabeth Hogan
Long after its initial use, lost fishing gear persists in the world’s oceans for up to hundreds of years. It may travel vast distances, from continent to continent. It’s found in every ocean and sea on earth, from remote Antarctic habitats to North America’s expansive coastlines. And this lost, abandoned or otherwise derelict fishing gear – known ominously as “ghost gear” -- is a major reason why the world’s oceans are a perilous place to live. Hundreds of thousands of animals are killed every year by the approximately 640,000 tons of gear that are left in the world’s oceans annually.
Every lost fishing net is a floating death trap. When 870 ghost nets were recovered off the coast of Washington state, they contained more than 32,000 marine animals, including more than 500 birds, turtles and mammals. World Animal Protection estimates that entanglement in ghost gear kills at least 136,000 seals, sea lions and large whales every year around the world. And an inestimable number of birds, turtles, fish, and other marine species are injured and killed by ghost gear, too. Once entangled, marine life can drown within minutes or endure long, slow deaths lasting months or even years.
Ghost gear is a problem without simple villains or easy solutions. Gear loss is most often caused by commonplace occurrences, such as extreme weather, strong currents, or gear conflicts between active trawlers and static nets. The fishing industry itself is heavily invested in solving the ghost gear crisis, since derelict gear costs many millions of dollars in clean-up expenses and lost fishing time and compromises yields and income for fisheries. The loss of marketable lobster due to ghost gear, to look at just a single species, is estimated to cost $250 million per year globally. There are no ghost-gear-free seafood brands for consumers to choose, because of the convoluted nature of seafood supply chains; at a local grocery store in New York, for example, you may buy fish that’s been caught in Thailand, processed in China and packaged in Europe.
The transnational nature of the ghost gear problem means that global, cooperative solutions are imperative to solving it. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the first cross-sectoral alliance committed to driving solutions to lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide, was launched in 2015 with participants from the fishing industry, the private sector, academia, governments, and intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations.
Solutions to the ghost gear problem will also be on the agenda at the July 2016 meeting of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI), a subsidiary body of the U.N.’s FAO Council. A crucial aspect of solutions proposed will include prioritizing the marking of fishing gear. While seemingly simple, gear marking has the potential to be a game changer. Enabling recovered gear to be tracked back and returned to its source – now very difficult without global guidelines in place – can potentially reduce the accumulation of ghost gear in our oceans. Gear marking would also help to combat illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, known as IUU fishing, which threatens ocean ecosystems around the world.
Businesses also have a major role to play. Companies like Bureo – which uses recovered ghost gear to make skateboards and sunglasses -- show that with a little innovation, the materials used to make fishing gear can be sustainably recycled. Patagonia also creatively repurposes lost nets by integrating recycled fishing nylon into many of its products.
We urge all COFI Member States to commit to prioritizing the marking of fishing gear this summer. The U.S. has so far been a leader in ghost gear recovery. NOAA’s Fishing for Energy program, modeled after Hawaii’s Nets to Energy program, recycles recovered fishing gear into reusable steel and derelict nets into energy. We are hopeful that the U.S. will continue to take a leading role in reducing the proliferation of ghost gear. But this is an issue that truly demands international attention and solutions. Tags from lobster pots set in Maine and Newfoundland have washed up in Scotland; fishing nets from Asia turn up on Hawaiian beaches. Finding and implementing sustainable solutions to such a complex problem is difficult – but it’s also an opportunity to shape a better future for marine industries and animals alike.
Image credits: World Animal Protection/Rachel Ceretto
Elizabeth Hogan is U.S. Oceans and Wildlife Campaign Manager at World Animal Protection. Her work focuses on marine wildlife entanglement, whaling policy, marine wildlife in captivity, and illegal wildlife trade. She has a degree in Foreign Service from Georgetown University and a dual Master of Science in Marine & Coastal Natural Resources and a Master of Science in Sustainable Development from the University for Peace in Costa Rica and American University in Washington, DC.