In August, around 300 endangered sea turtles were found dead off the southern coast of Mexico, trapped in what was believed to be an abandoned fishing net. The deaths of the olive ridley turtles dramatically underscored the dangers posed by lost or discarded fishing equipment or so-called ghost gear.
The figures are staggering: each year more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles get caught in abandoned or lost fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and lobster pots. Some of the abandoned nets can be as big as football pitches, and this plastic-based ghost gear can take up to 600 years to break down, shedding microplastics as it degrades.
Seabirds gather pieces of netting to make their nests and can then get entangled. Ghost gear also threatens shallow coral reefs and damages fisheries by killing seafood that would otherwise form part of the global catch, costing millions of dollars in losses.
While public awareness of marine plastic pollution has fuelled a global movement to eliminate unnecessary single-use plastics from our daily lives, the damage caused by ghost gear is less well known, partly because the deadly consequences play out on the high seas, far from human scrutiny.
It is estimated that between 600,000–800,000 metric tonnes of ghost gear enters the ocean each year, with some of it lost during storms and some deliberately dumped. Nick Mallos, Director of the Trash Free Seas Program at Ocean Conservancy, says this is likely a conservative estimate.
“Ghost gear is the most deadly form of marine litter out there. It is a very serious form of debris that has a very real impact,” he said.
Ocean Conservancy will assume the leadership of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative in January, taking over from World Animal Protection. Mallos says there is a strong impetus across the sector to prevent the loss of more gear and collect and recycle what is already in our oceans.
Launched in 2015, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative brings together governments, private sector corporations, the fishing industry, non-governmental organizations and academia to tackle the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear. UN Environment, which launched its Clean Seas campaign in 2017 to encourage governments, businesses and people to act against plastic pollution, is also part of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative.
For Mallos, the buy-in from all those concerned has been impressive, but the momentum must be maintained to protect marine wildlife and coastal communities.
“Working with fishers and working with local organizations to create collaborative cross-sector partnerships to remove gear, particularly from ecologically sensitive habitats, is an important workstream that will continue. Another piece that is critically important, and has really taken off this year, is looking at ways to continue scaling the Best Practice Framework for the Management of Fishing Gear globally,” Mallos said.
The Framework recommends practical solutions to prevent and mitigate the impacts of lost gear across the entire seafood supply chain from gear manufacturers to port operators. It provides case studies on how changes have been achieved in net recycling programmes, derelict gear retrieval and fishing management policies.
“It is not just an academic or theoretical exercise. We are seeing these best practices implemented into supply chains with some of the corporations with whom we work. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative is in the process of working with different certification bodies to see how we can incorporate the best practices for gear management into these various certification schemes,” Mallos said.
Some of the solutions being considered include marking fishing gear at the manufacturing stage, promoting the development of biodegradable fishing pots, and encouraging innovative designs to make it easier to recycle the plastics used by the fishing industry. Manufacturers could also provide incentives and facilities for fishers to return their gear at the end of its life. The key is to integrate fishing gear fully into a circular economy.
However, illegal fishing remains a block to progress. Sometimes illegal fishing boats will dump their equipment to evade detection, legal action or fines.
“Just like all aspects of marine debris, whether it is consumer plastics or fishing gear, there is no silver bullet solution,” said Mallos. “We are not going to tackle all sources and origins with a single approach. Even with the best practices being put forth, there is going to be that, for the most part, uncontrollable aspect of illegal fishing.”
Alongside efforts to prevent the loss of gear in the first place, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is working with partners to clear the nets, hooks, lines and traps that are already drifting silently through our seas and recycle them to make new products.
Danish company Plastix Global recycles ghost gear collected from Global Ghost Gear Initiative projects in Britain and Alaska, turning it into plastic pellets, plastic tokens for festivals or supermarkets, and local crafts. In Chile, the Net Positiva project provides fishers with disposal points for used gear and then recycles it into sunglasses, frisbees, chairs and skateboard decks.
Across the Mediterranean, Adriatic and North Seas, Healthy Seas collects ghost gear and provides it to producer Aquafil, which makes Econyl, a nylon yarn, used to create sportswear, swimwear, underwear and carpets. Econyl’s creators say it is the same as brand new nylon and can be recycled, recreated and remoulded again and again.
Pioneering solutions like this will be front-and-centre at the fourth UN Environment Assembly when it meets next March to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. The meeting’s motto is to think beyond prevailing patterns and live within sustainable limits.
Many ghost gear recycling projects directly involve fishers and coastal communities, who, in the past, were often considered part of the problem. Today, Mallos said, there is a recognition that ghost gear is a “lose-lose” situation for everyone.
“When there is a large amount of ghost gear out there, it affects fishers’ bottom lines, it affects the future sustainability of otherwise harvestable catch, and often it prevents them from spending more time on the water,” he said.
The Global Ghost Gear Initiative hopes that by 2030 the global tonnage of gear that is lost in the ocean annually will be equal to or smaller than the amount of gear that is recovered, recycled and re-used.
“While the threat from fishing gear is very different from that of consumer plastics, when we think about what is the most appropriate and effective mechanism to stop impact in the ocean, it’s exactly the same: let’s stop it at its source and prevent it from getting lost in the first place,” Mallos said.
Ahead of the United Nations Environment Assembly next March, UN Environment is urging people to Think Beyond and Live Within. Join the debate on social media using #SolveDifferent to share your stories and see what others are doing to ensure a sustainable future for our planet.