‘Ghost fishing’: the gear that keeps on fishing

Published 23/09/2022   |   Reading Time minutes

As awareness grows of the state of our seas, ‘ghost fishing’ is a phenomenon being pulled from watery depths to political discussion.

It’s where lost or discarded fishing nets, pots and lines continue to trap marine life and smother habitats. Trapped animals act as bait for larger predators which subsequently become trapped. Made of plastic, the gear has the long-term legacy of releasing micro-plastics into the food chain.

Lost fishing gear is often accidental, a result of the conditions at sea.

It can also pose a risk to humans by disrupting navigation, competing against fishers for their catch, and creating hazards for scuba divers.

This article looks at the scale of the issue and measures to tackle it.

55,000 double-decker buses worth of fishing gear is lost each year

Ghost fishing is largely undocumented in Wales, but environmental organisations such as the Marine Conservation Society are concerned about the possible extent of the damage.

Volunteer initiatives such as Ghost Fishing UK and Neptune’s Army are collecting data on the scale of the issue, and removing the equipment from marine environments. A single recovery day can cost £1,000 to remove on average 100kg of ghost gear.

On a global scale, Greenpeace reports an estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enter the oceans each year, the same weight as 55,000 double-decker buses. It is estimated to make up 10% of ocean plastic pollution, but forms the majority of large plastic litter.

A 2010 study analysed 870 recovered fishing nets off the coast of Washington State, United States. It found the ghost gear contained over 32,000 marine organisms, including 1,036 fish, 514 birds and 23 marine mammals.

In terms of economic impact, removal of 10% of derelict traps in the world’s largest crustacean fisheries could increase harvest by $831m annually. A 2016 study found extensive gear removal programs in Chesapeake Bay, United States, increased blue crab harvest by 23.8% over a six year period.

The ‘Joint Fisheries Statement’ is the UK’s next opportunity to tackle ghost fishing

The governments of the UK outlined plans to improve the sustainability of fishing in a draft Joint Fisheries Statement at the start of the year.

To tackle marine litter, it proposes that the fisheries policy authorities (which includes Welsh Ministers) should increase the amount of end-of-life fishing gear that is collected and managed sustainably. The proposals encourage the circular design of fishing and aquaculture gear to prevent gear loss, facilitate lost gear retrieval and reduce the environmental impact in the event of absolute loss. They commit to improving wider material “reusability, reparability, and recyclability”.

Respondents to the draft Joint Fisheries Statement consultation suggested specific measures should be included in the statutory ‘fisheries management plans’ (which set out policies for sustainable fish stocks) to manage fishing gear waste. A number of respondents welcomed commitments to incentivise more selective fishing gear. Others called for gear to be biodegradable and traceable. There was the suggestion that those causing pollution should be taxed to fund net zero efforts, while others said there should be a total ban on causing pollution. It was highlighted that a lot of fleets already remove all types of marine litter.

The Senedd’s Economy, Trade and Rural Affairs Committee called for more specific commitments to reduce sea litter in the Joint Fisheries Statement

The Welsh Fishermen’s Association told the Committee about voluntary measures to reduce ghost fishing, such as putting escape gaps into lobster pots to allow juveniles to escape. The fastenings of those escape gaps are biodegradable, so over time they open to leave a large aperture letting any catch out if the pot is not recovered. There are also efforts to install devices onto gear to allow its recovery through sonar. The challenge of biodegradable gear was highlighted due to the need for it to be long lasting.

The Committee welcomed reference to the use of more selective fishing gear and the collection of end of life fishing gear in the draft Joint Fisheries Statement. The Committee reported these will be important steps to reducing sea litter, and in particular plastics in the marine environment.

However, Members were concerned that the draft Joint Fisheries Statement did not include specific commitments, targets or methods for reducing waste. The Committee recommended:

The Welsh Government should work with the other UK administrations to ensure the inclusion of strategies and clear targets for the reduction of sea litter within the JFS [Joint Fisheries Statement].

The Welsh Government should look to develop a clear strategy setting out how it will encourage innovation in gear design, support lost gear retrieval and facilitate the disposal and recycling of fishing gear at ports.

The final Joint Fisheries Statement is expected in November where the governments’ ambition to tackle ghost fishing will come to light.

The Welsh Government has rolled out a fishing gear recycling scheme – the first of the UK nations

Recycling bins for used fishing gear have been placed at Swansea, Milford Haven, Fishguard, Cardigan, Conwy, Anglesey and Holyhead harbours. On the first collection (in March) three tonnes of fishing gear were collected for recycling from the seven harbours around Wales.

The Welsh Government is working with Odyssey Innovation Ltd, partners in the fishing industry, Surfers against Sewage and Keep Wales Tidy on the scheme.

Meanwhile… across the pond

Examples from elsewhere include Canada, where the government and the fishing industry have collaborated on a range of initiatives:

  • Since 2018, all fixed-gear fisheries in Atlantic Canada, including crab and lobster, are required to report lost and retrieved gear;
  • The creation of a Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program (SFSRSCP) which financially supports fish harvesters and coastal communities in ghost gear retrieval and disposal; and
  • Plastic challengesto encourage small businesses to develop innovative technologies to retrieve ghost gear and reduce future gear loss. In 2019 a company from Nova Scotia received a DFO grant to design a low-cost acoustically activated ropeless fishing system and gear tracking system for use in the lobster and crab fisheries.

Ocean currents carrying ghost gear long distances demand international action

In recognition that marine litter is a global problem that requires global action, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the UK, and the EU adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter in 2018.

The Charter commits its partners (now over 20 countries and 60 businesses and organisations) to adopt a life-cycle approach to plastics management – including ghost gear – and increase investments for coastal clean-up.

Further, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) was launched in 2015. The initiative focuses on evidence building, on-the-ground solutions and reviewing policy. It brings together industry, governments, academics and charities. One project is the Pembrokeshire Sustainable Shellfish Initiative, a pilot demonstrating practical modifications to lobster pots to minimise ghost fishing.

You can watch a 4 minute film on the Pembrokeshire project which shows techniques such as biodegradable hooks to allow escape, and tagging to allow gear to be returned to fishers if lost. The project illustrates how addressing ghost fishing is important for both the economic sustainability of coastal communities and the marine environment.

Article by Dr Katy Orford, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament