The Ghost Gear that Haunts the World’s Oceans

Lost or abandoned fishing nets, and other gear, is becoming a hazard worldwide for marine life and humans alike. Photo: David Clode
Lost or abandoned fishing nets, and other gear, is becoming a hazard worldwide for marine life and humans alike. Photo: David Clode

By Rocky Guzman

Lost or discarded fishing gear has become a growing menace in our oceans, killing sea life and contributing to plastic pollution that threatens humans as well.

In 2018, more than 300 entangled sea turtles were found dead in an abandoned fishing net off the coast of Mexico. In one fell swoop, a large bale of threatened olive ridleys was destroyed. These incidents are not new. Harrowing images of birds and seals choking on nets litter social media feeds regularly and with increasing frequency.

The culprit, in some cases, is ghost gear – the aptly named lost or discarded fishing equipment that has become a growing menace in our oceans.

Around 640,000 tons of this abandoned gear are projected to enter the seas every year.  The pervasive use of plastic as a low-cost and durable material for fishing has exacerbated the problem. Abandoned fishing gear not only kills an incalculable amount of sea life, it also forms a large part of global marine plastic pollution.

Ghost gear is estimated to contribute 10% of total marine debris, but in some areas, there are additional challenges. Small islands and remote beaches are particularly vulnerable. Perhaps the most distressing of all is the “great Pacific garbage patch”, in which nets make up the majority of litter across an area of 1.6 million square kilometers, forming a giant pool of rubbish mixed with thousands of marine casualties.

The damage of ghost gear is multi-faceted. It can smother the sea bottom, introduce synthetic material to the food web, and pollute beaches. It can lead to lower catches in fisheries and disruption of tourism which deprive coastal communities of economic opportunities and income.

Although ghost gear in the ocean is often caused by snagging on rough seabeds and extreme weather conditions, in Asia Pacific the root cause can be tied to behavioral and socioeconomic conditions. In particular, countries are faced with daunting challenges on fisheries management and law enforcement, which has failed to address the prevalent practice of discarding gear to save on weight and fuel costs.

We need to act swiftly, or else, the ghosts of the oceans
will continue to haunt us.

Then there are the gaps in infrastructure, such as port reception and disposal facilities. Weaknesses in technological capacity and monitoring also hound the system of gear management. These issues contribute to the threat ghost gear poses to important industries that support the local livelihoods of coastal communities.

In order to address ghost gear, best management practices should be put in place and firmly implemented. Interventions should seek to change human behavior, along with measures that promote innovations in technology.

Adopt gear marking and tracking. ‘Tagging’ of gear has been effective for small-scale fisheries pilots in Indonesia to stake ownership and instill accountability among fishers to prevent loss. It is particularly helpful to discourage discarding, and promotes better gear reporting and recovery.

In Vanuatu, tracking devices on fishing gear which regularly transmit location data to authorities have proven instrumental for speedy retrieval. Compliance with these measures can be promoted by making them an intrinsic feature of the gear or as prerequisite to registration. Development of low-cost technology is also critical to drive costs down to cater to artisanal fisheries.

Invest in green ports. The lack of adequate disposal facilities is a major challenge in ghost gear management. In the Pacific islands, the lack of port reception facilities for mostly foreign-flagged fishing vessels is a primary environmental concern. The waste fishing gear buy-back project in the Republic of Korea, where the government purchases gear returned to port, has been lauded for its cost‐effectiveness and convenience. Proper and accessible waste reception in ports is therefore crucial to prevent unwanted gear from entering the oceans.

Establish zoning schemes. Static gear such as traps and pots are frequently towed away by other moving gear and vessels. Allocating zones in the oceans for users to operate is important to avoid such gear conflict. The prawn fishery industry in Australia has seen a drop in occurrence of ghost gear through a suite of spatial closures, coupled with improvements in waste management practices and education for fishing crew. This experience may be readily applied to other areas to abate spatial pressure among competing marine users.

Adopt a circular economy approach. Clear reporting systems, recovery operations, and local recycling initiatives go hand in hand to reduce gear waste. Collection in local communities can feed to “upcycling” projects with a view to  integrating them into the market supply chain. In Thailand, ghost nets from coastal villages have been reprocessed into face shields which command a premium price. The goal is to make the business model profitable to benefit local residents, then make it scalable across the region.

To maximize gains, these measures should be pursued within the broader context of conservation and management measures for fisheries and improved monitoring, alongside advances in waste management and education. Aside from developing plans and regulations, market-based instruments such as eco-labeling programs and economic incentives for proper disposal may be a potent tool to address the issue.

It is time to translate good practices into action and build the enabling environment to curb ghost gear. The next steps can start with reforms in fisheries and waste management policies and strengthening their enforcement to spur lasting behavioral and system changes.

We need to act swiftly, or else, the ghosts of the oceans will continue to haunt us.