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Improving ocean health through the elimination of ghost gear

Estimates by FAO and UNEP suggest that abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear makes up about one-tenth of all marine litter, translating roughly into the equivalent of 640 000 tonnes annually

An expert consultation in Rome discusses international guidelines for marking fishing gear

So-called ghost gear – a segment of abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear  found increasingly in our oceans – has become a significant component of marine debris. Ghost gear can have negative impacts on marine ecosystems and wildlife, lead to decreased catches for fishing vessels, and often translate into additional costs for the fishing sector.

The latest estimates by FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) suggest that abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear makes up about one-tenth of all marine litter, translating roughly into the equivalent of 640 000 tonnes annually.

This abandoned   gear  is one of the more problematic components of marine litter, since  it remains in the oceans and often continue carrying out the capture process, entangling fish in its nets. This process is commonly referred to as ‘ghost fishing’.

Until now, international efforts to minimize ghost fishing have met with only limited success. There are few requirements by governments for ownership marking on gear, and no international regulations, guidelines or common practices exist for the marking of fishing gear deployed outside of national jurisdictions.

A group of international experts – government officials, representatives of the fishing sector, and civil society organizations – come together in Rome at FAO Headquarters for an expert consultation on marking fishing gear

At its 31st session, FAO’s Committee on Fisheries expressed concerns about abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear and urged member countries and regional fisheries bodies to increase their efforts to mitigate the negative effects of this ghost gear.

In response to these concerns, FAO is organizing a Expert Consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear. Eighteen experts from governments, the fishing sector, and civil society organizations will be at FAO Headquarters 4-7 April to discuss the creation of draft guidelines that will then be provided to the FAO Committee on Fisheries for further consideration.

Furthermore, there is a strong link between this abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear and illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing vessels are more likely to dump their fishing gear when patrol vessels are in sight or when entry to a port is denied. IUU vessels are also unlikely to report lost gear that may have been lost in extreme weather conditions or through operator error.

This abandoned gillnet has trapped crabs in this underwater debris. So-called ghost fishing – the abandoned gear that continues carrying out the capture process, entangling fish in its nets - is a serious concern within the marine debris debate

Speaking at the opening session, Árni M. Mathiesen, Assistant Director-General of FAO’s Fisheries and Aquaculture Department welcomed participants to the consultation, noting that “the environmental impacts caused by abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear have been widely recognized and greater international attention is now focused on this important issue.

The appropriate marking of fishing gear can be an effective tool to improve the state of the marine environment by combating the abandonment, loss and discarding of fishing gear, and by facilitating the recovery of such gear.”

According to Petri Suuronen, FAO Fishery Industry Officer, “Ghost fishing has been a concern for FAO over many decades. It is addressed in FAO’s Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries and FAO International Guidelines on bycatch management and reduction of discards. But the phenomenon appears to be increasing, so we especially welcome this expert consultation.

We believe this is an important first step to gather concrete recommendations that can be incorporated into guidelines developed to address these concerns by more consistent marking of fishing gear and greater awareness about the problem. Ideally, we hope to emerge from this process with guidelines that will be practical and effective for member countries, the fishing industry and non-governmental organizations working alongside fishing communities.”

Participants nominated as Chair of the Expert Consultation, Ms Deirdre Warner Kramer, Senior Foreign Affairs Officer at the US Office of Marine Conservation

Discussion at the opening session reviewed many of the challenges and opportunities faced when drafting new guidelines on marking fishing gear. FAO’s Petri Suuronen reminded participants that guidelines must be feasible and at an acceptable cost for member countries sand small-scale fishing communities. The guidelines should also cause minimal administrative burden to those who will have to implement them.

Mitchell Lay, a participant representing the Caribbean Network Fisherfolk Organization urged that any eventual guidelines include substantial outreach and communication efforts for the fisheries industry, which would be crucial for their eventual widespread acceptance and use.

Another attending expert, Joanne Toole of the World Animal Protection, noted that the idea of adopting guidelines for marking fishing gear had been attempted in the past, but she pointed out to participants that this was a good time to make progress in this area. “Organizations like mine are looking carefully at the new Sustainable Development Goals, and particularly SDG14 aimed at the conservation and sustainable use of oceans, seas and marine resources. One of the SDG 14 targets is on marine litter, so this work is providing a positive step forward.”

The workshop runs through 7 April at FAO Headquarters.

Although IUU fishing is a driver of the increasing amount of ghost gear found in our oceans, the problem is also growing because of extreme weather that frequently leads to losses of fishing gear, and sweeps away nets and fishing gear of coastal fishing communities, like these small-scale fishermen in Western Africa


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