New technologies boost efforts to cut down on environmentally harmful "ghost fishing"

Growing concern for impacts of lost and abandoned fishing gear - marking guidelines being developed

21 April 2016, Rome - Modern technologies that make it easier to recover lost fishing gear are giving a boost to efforts to reduce so-called "ghost fishing" and its harmful impacts on fish stocks and endangered species. Growing concern over this problem, coupled with the increasing availability of these technologies, has led FAO to begin developing international guidelines on the effective tagging of fishing gear as a way to cut down levels of troublesome sea trash.

What is known as abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) makes up a significant portion of all marine debris, a growing problem in marine ecosystems.

Levels of ALDFG have gone up significantly in recent decades as a result of increases in the scale of fishing operations and the extensive use of long-lasting synthetic materials. At present, it accounts for about one-tenth of all marine litter, translating into hundreds of thousands of tonnes annually.

This abandoned gear is one of the most problematic types of marine debris, since it can remain in the oceans for years, often continuing to carry out the capture process it was designed for, entangling fish and other marine animals in its nets and killing them - a phenomenon known as ghost fishing.

"The effective marking of fishing gear in busy multi-user sea areas is key to preventing its loss and protecting marine ecosystems," according to FAO Fishery Industry Officer Petri Suuronen. "Fishers can also benefit from the use of new gear tagging technologies which will allow them to minimise loss of potential catch and expensive equipment, and save time searching for lost gear," he said.

Abandoned and lost gears are also a hazard to safe navigation due to fouling of ship propulsion systems and propellers, and marking can help prevent accidents and fatalities.

It can also be a tool in the fight against illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, allowing control authorities to monitor how fishing gear is being used in their waters and who is using it.

New technologies for tracking lost gear

Today, advances in marking technology are offering new possibilities for efficient tracking and recovery of lost gear and are changing the way the problem is being tackled.

For example, coded wire tags (CWTs) are being tested as a potential tool for reducing entanglements of marine mammals, turtles and other large marine animals. The nano sized, laser-etched CTWs are implanted in fishing ropes with no effect on fishing performance but making them detectable to special sensors.

Satellite buoys with solar power are now commonly used in industrial purse seine operations, providing unlimited range and extra-long operating time. Other sensors, like GPS receivers, can be attached to a radio buoy and used to transmit data.

Acoustic technology, which takes advantage of the sound transmission properties of seawater, also has applications in locating lost gear. Active pingers emit sounds at certain frequencies once in the water, whereas passive sonar reflectors capture and reflect sound energy back to its source.

Lights have long been an integral part of fishing gear markers for the night but today energy-efficient LEDs are being fitted with solar panels, amplifying their effectiveness.

Guidelines in the works

Past efforts to develop international guidelines have been largely fragmented. There are few systematic requirements by governments for ownership marking of gear, and no international regulations, guidelines or common practices exist for marine areas outside of national jurisdictions. But that is starting to change, due to growing concerns of congestion in coastal waters, risks to safe navigation and accidental deaths of marine life.

To help tackled the problem, FAO has begun a consultative process aimed at developing a set of International Technical Guidelines on the Marking of Fishing Gear. An initial set of draft guidelines was discussed during a meeting of experts held at FAO's Rome headquarters in early April. The results will be presented to FAO's Committee on Fisheries in July 2016 for review and direction regarding next steps.

"What we need is a simple and affordable system that permits easy identification of ownership of gear, fishery of origin and position of gear in the water," said Suuronen. "The development of internationally recognised standards on marking all fishing gear will help us to better understand the reasons for gear loss and identify appropriate preventive measures." 

Photo: ©NOAA
Abandoned fishing gear like this gillnet continue to carry out the capture process, entangling fish and other marine animals.