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Towards Voluntary Guidelines on marking fishing gear

Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear is turned into so-called "ghost gear" on the seabed, where it continues capturing fish, crabs, and other marine life.

This issue of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear has been a concern for FAO and its Members for many decades. Discussions led by FAO about marking of fishing gear date back to 1991, when the first meeting discussing possible guidelines for marking of fishing gear was held in Canada. The recommendations did not move forward at that time, but the issue is once more on the table, at an upcoming Technical Consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear, being held this week 5-9 February at FAO Headquarters.

Today, the issue has taken on a new urgency. There is greater international support for protecting oceans and seas, and international attention is focused on the tragedy of marine debris. The UN's 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development also focuses attention on the issue with its Sustainable Development Goal 14.1, which urges a significant reduction of marine pollution of all kinds by 2025. Made predominantly of plastic, fishing gear when lost or abandoned at sea, is a critical component of marine debris that the global fishing industry and governments have a responsibility to address.

Some fishing gear is lost through uncontrollable circumstances – such as storms or accidents. Commonly, however, fishing gear is dumped by vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the hopes of evading detection or because there are no adequate facilities at ports for the reception of fishing gear.

Worrisome levels of this lost or abandoned fishing gear can be found on our sea beds, the water column and littering our beaches and can persist in these environments for hundreds of years causing significant concern for the marine environment, wildlife and fisheries. Much of this gear, and, in particular, gillnets, continues "fishing" even after it has been abandoned, thereby transforming it into so-called "Ghost gear" that can have detrimental impacts on fish stocks as fish and other marine organisms become entangled in these nets, often unable to escape. Unfortunately, estimates about how large the problem is are not precise enough. The best estimates we have come from FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Those estimates 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.

Fishing gear marking currently negotiated at FAO would help in ensuring that all fishing gear is marked, and, if lost or discarded, could be traced back to its original owner.

Environmental and sustainability concerns are not the only dangers. Abandoned fishing gear also poses serious safety concerns to navigation. Recent studies in the Republic of Korea indicate increased incidences of ships' propellers becoming entangled in abandoned fishing gear in Korean Seas. Some of these incidents have led to serious accidents, including the capsizing of a passenger ship where 292 people lost their lives.

Fishing gear marking currently negotiated at FAO would help in ensuring that all fishing gear is marked, and, if lost or discarded, could be traced back to its original owner. Some international instruments addressing the lost fishing gear issue already exist, including the International Maritime Organization (IMO)-negotiated Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) that that prohibits the discharge of into the sea of all plastics, including synthetic fishing gear. Annex V also requires that the loss of fishing gear is reported to the vessel's flag State and to the costal State, in which waters the loss occurred. In practice, this is not yet widely done. An increased focus on marine debris coupled with new fishing gear marking guidelines would be an important step to complementing the enforcement of Annex V of MARPOL. At a time when the fight against illegal fishing is high on the international agenda, fishing gear marking would also be a useful tool to trace abandoned fishing gear back to unscrupulous operators.

However, as with many of the changes occurring in the sector, any agreement must be aware of the needs of developing countries, and ensure capacity building efforts are built into any new guidelines.

A workshop earlier this month for an ongoing project on Gillnet Marking and Retrieval in Indonesian Small-scale Fisheries with FAO and partners.

Ari Gudmundsson, Head of FAO Fishing Operation and Technology Branch, has been working on this issue for some time, and is optimistic about progress being made. "Much has changed in international discussions on marine debris, and the understanding of the abandoned fishing gear issue" according to Gudmundsson. "Some of the concerns raised about the recommendations proposed in 1991 were that some countries, in particular developing countries, might experience difficulties in meeting requirements. This was a key issue in our expert consultation on marking fishing gear, held in Rome 4-7 April 2016 that agreed that the level of complexity of the gear marking should be based upon the necessity and practicability of the marking system. Member countries and partners understand the need to work to build capacity in developing countries and among small-scale fisheries communities. For instance, while many ports do include reception facilities for disposing of fishing gear, these facilities are still non-existent in the ports of many countries. Any guidelines would need to work with developing countries to build capacity and ensure adequate facilities to meet these new standards. This is something that emerged very clearly during our 2016 expert consultation, and this issue is on the agenda at our upcoming technical consultation."

According to Gudmundsson, "We are also testing out new procedures and testing methods through pilot projects."

Participants at the Gillnet Marking and Retrieval in Indonesian Small-scale Fisheries.

One such pilot project is in Indonesia, where FAO consultant Joanna Toole recently participated in a technical workshop and field visit earlier this month. "Our work in Indonesia with the Indonesian government and partners World Animal Protection and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative demonstrates that there is both willingness and feasibility to implement gear marking within small scale coastal fisheries in developing countries where the ghost gear problem is currently prevalent.

"This project enabled us to engage with local fishing collectives using gill nets which are a very high risk gear type for marine debris. Feedback from participants at the recent workshop highlighted that gear marking is viewed as an effective tool in achieving better management tool fishing gear but needs to be incorporated into a wider holistic framework of best practice measures to achieve maximum effectiveness".

We hope this week's technical consultation brings us a step closer to voluntary guidelines on the marking of fishing gear – and cleaner seas.

Some fishing gear is lost through uncontrollable circumstances – such as storms or accidents. Commonly, however, fishing gear is dumped by vessels engaged in illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing in the hopes of evading detection.
Worrisome levels of this lost or abandoned fishing gear can be found on our sea beds, the water column and littering our beaches and can persist in these environments for hundreds of years causing significant concern for the marine environment, wildlife and fisheries.
A project with small-scale fisheries communities in Indonesia FAO is collaborating on is experimenting with marking fishing gear.
Indonesian fishermen are using newly marked fishing gear as part of a pilot project FAO, the Ghost Gear Initiative and partners are carrying out in the country.

 

 

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