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Loss of gear such as nets used in artisinal fisheries is quite common
Loss of gear such as nets used in artisinal fisheries is quite common


One fisher talking about his lost fishing gear explained, "It isn't lost, I know where it is!" The problem was that he could not retrieve it from the bottom of the sea. Fishing gear can become "lost" due to marker buoys cut by passing vessels or by trawl or seine warps breaking during the fishing process. In some cases, fishing vessels must cut gear adrift for safety reasons in very bad weather conditions. Given that the loss of fishing gear under these circumstances represent a financial loss to the operator, it is more than likely that an attempt will be made to recover it. Under current practices, the amount of time and effort spent retrieving gear is related to its value, the probability of recovery and the opportunity cost of carrying on fishing.

Abandoned fishing gear, on the other hand, implies that the gear has no financial value to the fisher and that leaving it in the sea is a convenient means of disposal for the careless and irresponsible fisher. However, this practice breaches the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). The FAO Recommendations for the Marking of Fishing Gear provides legal and technical measures that can be taken by national administrations to ensure that the abandonment of fishing gear is minimized.

The fishing industry has a vested interest in ensuring that lost and abandoned fishing gear in the sea is kept to a minimum. What is considered an issue of pollution to the environmentalist becomes a matter of life or death to the fisher if such gear becomes entangled in the propeller of his fishing vessel. For this reason, most responsible fishers retrieve such lost and abandoned gear where possible and, if worthless, dispose of it ashore.

In addition to the pollution aspect, lost or abandoned gear can continue fishing, long out of the fisher's control. Such an uncontrolled, unproductive process is known as "ghost fishing" and the extent and time it continues depends on the type of fishing gear. Quantifying the loss of marine resources due to "ghost fishing" is difficult to estimate, but several studies on static gears have shown it to be about 10% of the target population.

In view of the above, the FAO Code of Conduct of Responsible Fisheries refers directly to the harmful effects of lost or abandoned fishing gear. The Code specifies:

  • 7.2.2g: Such measures (i.e. management measures) should provide inter alia ... that pollution, waste, discards, catch by lost or abandoned gear, catch of non-target species, both fish and non- fish species, and impacts on associated or dependent species are minimized, through measures including, to the extent practicable, the development and use of selective, environmentally safe and cost-effective fishing gear and techniques.
  • 7.6.9: States should take appropriate measures to minimize waste, discards, catch by lost or abandoned gear, catch of non-target species, both fish and non-fish species, and negative impacts on associated or dependent species, in particular endangered species.
  • 8.4.6: States should cooperate to develop and apply technologies, materials and operational methods that minimize the loss of fishing gear and the ghost fishing effects of lost or abandoned fishing gear.

Action to be taken

Quantifying the gear loss problem

Action to be taken by national administrations to reduce the effects of gear loss and abandonment would be to initially quantify the problem. Given that artisanal fishers in most countries use passive fishing gear such as driftnets, set nets, traps and pots, it would be wrong to say that the problem does not exist. The question is, to what extent? Therefore, the first point to examine would be to estimate the amount of gear being purchased by fishers within a country and the number of fishers. An administration could then consider how to tackle the problem.

Surveying for lost and abandoned fishing gear

If a problem is believed to be present, a survey could be carried out to estimate the amount of lost or abandoned fishing gear. For driftnets this is a relatively easy albeit time-consuming task if a suitable vessel is available for a survey. By visually searching the sea over a given area one can estimate the amount of nets drifting and extrapolate this figure to the total area of interest. Using questionnaires could, in some environments, lead to an estimate of “lost gear”.

Nets along the shore are an aesthetic eyesore and could point to an environmental hazard. However, it is a poor measure of the extent of the problem because the material could have been accumulated over a long period and could have been brought to shore by currents from thousand of miles away. In the absence of a worldwide marking system, an accurate assessment is improbable. Furthermore, there is also the possibility that currents take lost or abandoned gear away from an area where it was lost and pose a problem in another area (e.g. fishing nets which were lost in the North Pacific have been found on the reefs in Hawaii, United States of America).

For set nets, traps and pots, the best method to survey a specific area for lost or abandoned gear is with underwater video cameras, e.g. mounted in a remote controlled underwater observation vehicle as used by the offshore gas and oil industry (note that for scuba divers, swimming near entangling nets is extremely dangerous). However, long observation periods might be needed before any sighting is obtained of one instance of a net or trap actually ghost fishing. This in itself could be an indication of the extent of the problem.

A quick analysis on paper of lost gillnets and traps (there are not many) would give an average of about 10% of all fishing gear lost in one year. This average hides extremes such as those found in the Lesser Antilles or in the Bay of Bengal where hurricanes or tidal waves can result in a loss of nearly 100% of static fishing gear.

Port administrations should ensure that reception facilities are available for the ready disposal of disused fishing gear and other wastes from vessels. Small-scale fishing communities should also be encouraged to recycle nylon and synthetic nets where possible, using the proceeds for the benefit of the community.

In accordance with regulation 9 of Annex V of MARPOL, which was adopted in 1995, all ships of 400 gross tonnage and above and every ship certified to carry 15 persons or more must provide a Garbage Record Book to record all disposal and incineration operations. The date, time, position of the ship, description of the garbage and the estimated amount incinerated or discharged must be logged and signed. The books must be kept for a period of two years after the date of last entry.

Marking fishing gear is one way to ensure traceability of lost equipment
Marking fishing gear is one way to ensure traceability of lost equipment


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