Our oceans are haunted

How “ghost fishing” is devastating our marine environments

“Ghost fishing” happens when lost or abandoned fishing gear stays in the ocean and traps fish or other marine life. © World Animal Protection


Ghost fishing. Sounds eerie, right? Unfortunately, it is indeed as eerie as it sounds. Ghost fishing occurs when lost or abandoned fishing gear stays in the ocean and traps fish or other marine life, indiscriminately killing whatever it catches.

Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), as it is known officially, is being recognized as a topic that we must tackle now for the sake of our marine environment and the people whose lives and livelihoods depend on it. It is estimated that 640 000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost or abandoned in the oceans every year. FAO and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) estimate that one tenth of all waste in the oceans is made up of this “ghost gear”.

Killing fish and other species, such as whales, dolphins, seals and turtles (some of which are endangered), is one of the many devastating impacts of ghost gear. Unfortunately, this is not the only problem. Derelict gear can also alter seabed and marine environments; it can create problems for navigation when ships get their propellers caught in it, in the worst cases leading to capsizing and fatalities. Ghost gear can also be washed up on the beach as litter, becoming a danger to birds and other coastal species and a health and safety hazard for beach-goers. Countries around the world are making great efforts to improve the management of fish stocks, and these efforts could be drastically undermined if the impacts of ghost fishing continue to increase.

How does “ghost gear” happen?

There are many different ways that fishing gear can end up in the ocean. Storms or bad weather can sweep it off of boats into the water. The marine environment itself can cause fishing gear to break, or fishing gear may become so entangled in other objects in the ocean that it becomes too difficult to retrieve. Some fishing gear may have unclear ownership and, therefore, be abandoned without repercussion. Sometimes there may be no adequate facilities in ports for boats to dispose of their end-of-life gear. Fishing gear may also be deliberately dumped as part of illegal fishing or simply be the result of accidents and human error.

At least 640 000 tonnes of fishing gear is estimated to be lost or abandoned in the oceans every year. Marking gear is one way to encourage the responsible management of fishing gear. ©World Animal Protection/ ©FAO/Kurt Arrigo

What can be done?

1.       Mark the gear

Marking gear enables identification of ownership and encourages responsible management of fishing gear. It can be a good way to identify and understand where recovered gear originally came from and return it to its owner, not just to identify offenders. Like many things, investing in the prevention of the problem through best practices, such as gear marking, may be more cost-effective than the clean-up required after gear is already lost. This is generally a better way of reducing ALDFG debris and its impacts.

2.      Improve reporting and recovery

Lost gear should be reported so that recovery efforts can be made. However, many vessels may not be able to retrieve the gear themselves because they lack the appropriate equipment or because it would be dangerous for the crew. Other vessels do not report losses because of fear of blame. A "no-blame" approach could be adopted to remove the vessel’s liability for losses. Incentivised retrieval schemes could also be implemented so that vessels that are equipped to do so bring back not only their own gear but other lost gear that they encounter at sea.  Authorities could play a bigger role in supporting recovery efforts and enforcing adherence to internationally-binding instruments, such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (known as MARPOL), that require lost gear to be reported.

3.     Stop illegal fishing

Although some gear is indeed lost by accident, some gear is abandoned as part of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing vessels sometimes dump their fishing gear when patrol vessels are nearby or when they have been denied entry to a port. These ships are also less likely to report gear that may have been lost due to extreme weather conditions or human error.

4.     Give economic incentives for prevention

Some fishing gear may not be worth very much monetarily; therefore fishers have little incentive to look after it appropriately or retrieve it when lost. Introducing schemes which add value to end-of-life fishing gear or create economic incentives for returning gear to appropriate disposal or recycling facilities could be a way to make this option attractive to fishers.

5.       Invest in new technologies  

Certain types of fishing gear can be quite expensive so, in some cases, fishers will go to great lengths to retrieve it. New technologies that use transponders and can be tracked by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can make retrieval easier. Weather monitoring technology helps prevention efforts, as it can help fishers know when there will be bad weather so they can avoid setting their nets.

6.       Improve collection, disposal and recycling schemes

Ports should be equipped with low-cost or free facilities to dispose of or recycle fishing gear. The existence of such facilities and providing boats with appropriate disposal bags on board can help solve the issue of where to put the gear once it is no longer wanted or once it has been retrieved from the oceans. There are a growing number of products, including clothing, carpet tiles, swim wear and sports equipment, now being made out of recycled fishing gear, but there is a need for more facilities with the ability to recycle the specific type of plastic used in fishing gear.

It is estimated that about ten percent of the world's population depends on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. The more illegal or ghost fishing occurs, the fewer resources fishers have to earn a living and secure food sources. ©World Animal Protection

What does ghost fishing have to do with ending hunger?

All of FAO’s work is done with the goal of eliminating hunger. Whether obvious or not, ghost fishing is an important issue for this in two ways:

1. Ghost fishing harms our oceans and wastes the food sources within them. With the increasing strain that all of our natural resources are facing, we cannot ignore the vital role that marine life plays for the food security of communities and peoples worldwide.

2. Ghost fishing harms the livelihoods of fishers and coastal communities. It is estimated that about ten percent of the world's population (or 1 in 10 people) depends on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. The more illegal or ghost fishing occurs, the fewer resources fishers around the world have to earn a living and secure food sources.

FAO has already developed several tools to address ghost and IUU fishing. The FAO Agreement on Port State Measures, for example, is an international treaty aiming at preventing, deterring and eliminating IUU fishing by verifying that all vessels requesting permission to dock have followed control procedures and standard inspections, including that fishing gear is authorized and marked in a way that corresponds with that vessel.  There are currently 69 Parties to the Agreement. In a further effort to address these issues, FAO members endorsed the international voluntary guidelines on the marking of fishing gear at the 33rd session of the Committee on Fisheries in 2018. 

By raising awareness about this issue, particularly for fishers and governments that might not know the full repercussions of ALDFG, we can solve issues like these that are detrimental to our environment, our resources, our food security and ultimately, our future.

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*This story is an update of one first published on 14 February 2018.

14. Life below water