Industrial fishing has been in hot water with the public for the last few years, with popular documentaries and exposés pointing out the devastating impacts of poor stewardship on the ocean. This outrage isn't unfounded: In addition to their role in overfishing, industrial fishing fleets leave a huge amount of waste in the ocean, including damaged or lost fishing gear that boats leave behind in their rush to fish. The lost gear clutters the oceans, making them less hospitable to life, and more problematic for other fishermen to use. This so-called "ghost gear" can be found anywhere that fishing boats operate and can drift to other areas. In places where spiraling currents push debris together, it is especially prevalent. Between Hawai'i and California, in a stretch of water known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, much of the metric tonnage of plastic is comprised of ghost fishing gear. But it doesn't have to be this way; there are potential solutions that could dramatically reduce the amount of abandoned gear in the oceans, keeping plastic out of food webs and reducing the overall burden of the fishing industry on marine pollution.
New research estimates that nearly 2% of all fishing gear is lost annually. This might not sound like much, but it adds up to 25 million pots and traps, along with 78,000 square kilometers of nets. This gear poses a serious threat to ocean wildlife, which get entangled in gear or consume plastic pieces as gear breaks down. Meanwhile, broken-down plastic eventually becomes tiny microplastic particles, which are increasingly ubiquitous in marine food chains and cause serious health issues for fish and other wildlife, as well as potential harm to the people who eat them.
That gear also has a direct human cost, especially for smaller fishermen who are trying to be good stewards of the ocean: For small boats, ghost gear can affect vessels' propulsion and ability to maneuver, ultimately making sustainable fishing even more difficult. Jon Russell, Food Justice Organizer at the North American Marine Alliance (NAMA), maintains that gear losses are less common when fishermen are careful, and says that in smaller fishing communities, there's still a sense of pride in doing things the right way. While larger operations can afford to bear the brunt of gear losses financially and operationally, smaller fishers often can't. But these small fishing communities are still impacted when commercial fleets set their traps down haphazardly. "Then it creates this culture: 'Well, if they're not going to do it right, we're not going to do it right' and it just gets really toxic really fast," he says.
When gear is left on the fishing ground by larger boats, it can severely impact the daily routine of other fishermen, particularly smaller operations. "If it's going to interfere with our daily routine, we cannot maximize our catch," says Captain Charlie Abner, who is a small boat fisherman and shrimper in the Southeast U.S. "You lose a whole day of fishing because you've got to redo your rigs. You've got to untangle this, you've got to untangle that. So, it's not easy."
Despite such challenges, Abner is optimistic that there's still a chance to improve the oceans for all. Regulation from Fishery Management Councils could help with encouraging fishermen within U.S. waters to do a good job of taking care of gear. "The councils do often have the potential to be great resources in maintaining healthy fisheries so long as they are making sure all the voices of the fishing communities they manage are being heard," Russell adds.
Beyond U.S. jurisdiction, changes from certification organizations will be key to tackling the problem in a way that can benefit all fishers in the long term. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) recently published their new Standard, which will come into effect in May 2023. This includes revised requirements around the consideration of ghost gear, directing fisheries to implement management strategies to minimize gear loss. In this updated Standard, the MSC provides extensive guidance on what they consider to be the minimum acceptable practice on reducing ghost gear impact. Fisheries that are seeking certification for the first time must adhere to the new Standard from May 2023, whilst certified fisheries will have at least three years before they are required to begin the transition to the new Standard.
As fishers prepare to comply with such requirements to mitigate gear loss, new solutions may be able to help. ResQunit is one company with a mission to help fishermen avoid losing gear, by providing traps that come with a reserve buoy with Electronic Time Release. If a trap is lost, the attached buoy will unspool itself and float to the surface. "We always say, our two biggest challenges are education and awareness," says Erik Nobbe, CSO of ResQunit AB, though he adds that the industry has been responding well to ResQunit's solution so far. He describes it as one way to turn the tap off when it comes to the lost gear that is gradually mounting up.
Beyond the environmental benefit, there's a clear economic incentive to avoiding lost gear, which must then be replaced. Nobbe points out that for fishing communities, watching costs closely is more important than ever right now, thanks to rising labor and gasoline prices, and rising interest rates on boat payments. Plus, some fishermen are getting less for their catches than in previous years, when market prices for crab and lobster were at a staggering high. "That bubble has recently burst," Nobbe says.
Some organizations are working not only to remove ghost gear from our waters, but also to do something valuable with it. For example, Nets For Net Zero is a nonprofit facilitating circular economies for ghost gear, with a goal to build a network that allows environmental organizations and the for-profit sector to connect and find symbiotic solutions in Canada and beyond. The plan is to use injection molding to make plastic-based goods. Plus, Nets for Net Zero is working on a hotspot mapping project. "The goal there is to really understand . . . how much gear is out there, and how can we create better systems that allow fishers to report lost gear, or found gear," says Nina Lantinga, one of the founding team members. The organization is partnering with eOceans, a citizens science activity tracker and observation logger, and the Fishing Gear Coalition of Atlantic Canada, to locate marine debris and remove it. By working with fishing communities and associations, they plan to create tools that work for them.
Lantinga emphasizes that rescuing lost equipment from the deep is only part of the equation; prevention is also key. While end-of-life gear remains difficult for fishers to dispose of in a way that is both safe and responsible, bad actors could continue to be tempted to dump unwanted gear at sea and might not be aware of the full impact of doing so. According to Lantinga, making recycling simpler — and free — for fishers will be key to solving the issue in the long term. "We need to make sure we have proper recycling processes, and we need to make those processes easy," she says. She suggests something that works in a similar way to a bottle deposit, whereby fishermen could be issued with credit when a net is brought back, for example. "Those kinds of systems make sense because it creates an incentive."
From equipment recovery to prevention of further loss, the time to act is now. In addition to polluting the oceans with plastics, ghost gear is already impacting fishing yields. "The best estimate I've seen is about 10% of fish stock is trapped and killed by ghost fishing gear," Lantinga says. "That's massive."