In early September 2018, we saw a dramatic example of the cost to marine life of abandoned fishing gear, infamously known as Ghost Gear. More than 300 endangered, Olive Ridley sea turtles were found dead, apparently after being entangled in an abandoned fishing net. The situation was especially deadly because it occurred during the turtles’ nesting season when thousands come ashore on Mexico’s Pacific beaches to lay their eggs. Can we find solutions to the scourge of abandoned fishing gear? Can Hi-Tech, the U.N. and Drones defeat Ghost Gear?
Correction: Turtles May have Died in Gill Nets
Blue Ocean reported that the 300 Olive Ridley turtles that died off of southern Mexico were caught in “ghost gear.” Several reputable sources including National Geographic had also reported that the deaths were most likely a result of a “ghost net.”
However, Christine Figgener, a BON contributor, Turtle scientist and the marine biologist that captured the Turtle-with-the-Straw video, has brought to our attention that the culprit in Mexico was not an abandoned “ghost net,” but rather a fisherman’s gill net that had been left in that location for too long. A deadly oversight considering that this was during the turtles’ nesting season. As Christine emphasizes “It for sure highlights that it is of utmost importance to educate small-scale fishermen as well about the impact they have on wildlife.”
One Ton Per Minute!
Although estimates vary widely on the percentage that ghost gear represents relative to the total plastic debris floating in the world’s oceans, it certainly exceeds 10% and could be as high as 70%. One estimate suggests, 640,000 tons of abandoned fishing gear are added to the oceans each year – that’s more than a ton every minute.
Gillnets are possibly the single most damaging piece of ghost gear. With floats at the top and weights on the bottom, gillnets form a wall designed to entangle fish by their gills. Larger marine animals like sea turtles, that cannot swim backwards to escape, are also often entrapped. Because gill nets are made of nylon and plastic they do not readily disintegrate and can continue to kill, sometimes for decades, after they are lost or abandoned.
It is not just marine mammals that are the victims of ghost gear. The charity World Animal Protection contends that millions of fish are killed in abandoned gear and that this partially accounts for the dramatic decline in the world’s fish stocks.
“Worryingly, the level of ghost gear has increased in recent years and it is likely to grow further as fishing efforts intensify all over the world. Effective solutions are being found locally and nationally, yet I believe only a global approach can enable us to monitor and fight this threat,” said Belgian Deputy Prime Minister, Didier Reynders.
Who Loses Lost Gear?
A field study being conducted by World Animal Protection and the Global Ghost Gear Initiative in the waters off Sadeng, Java in Indonesia reported that this area has very high rates of ghost gear. While fishing for spiny lobster alone, 35,000 pieces of gillnet are thought to be lost annually.
There are two main reasons for Sadeng’s high rate of lost fishing gear. First, the cost of replacing gill nets is low. Secondly, a federal program subsidizes fishing gear, leaveing little incentive for fishermen to retrieve nets lost at sea. Obviously, there is a need to educate the local fishermen in Sadeng of the impact that ghost gear has on their livelihood.
Large and Local and Illegal
A new report also done by WAP looked at the world’s 15 largest seafood companies and found that none were ranked as having “best practices” or making “responsible handling” of fishing gear a core element of their operations.
For example, Young’s, the best known seafood company in Britian, was ranked as “having work to do.” And Bumble Bee Seafoods, one of the largest in the U.S., showed “limited published evidence of implementing changes.” (photo – Greenpeace)
Thai Union, the world’s largest seafood company has responded to the challenge of ghost gear by announcing a “new partnership to help Thai Union take a leadership role in addressing this urgent issue.” More on that to come.
It is understandable that in bad storms it might be necessary for fishermen to abandon their gear. However illegal fishing is also responsible for a large percentage of ghost gear, often because they discard gear quickly to avoid being detected.
WAP has communicated with the world’s most powerful navies asking them to increase surveillance for illegal and unregulated fishing.
Good News on Ghost Gear
We had some favorable news out of California last week regarding a law passed that will eventually lead to the phasing out of all drift/gill nets used off the Pacific Coast of the U.S. (photo – Brian Skerry)
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation in partnership with NOAA and Covanta announced US$1.5 million in grants to reduce ghost gear in the waters of the United States. Targeted are the coastal waters of Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Maine, Puerto Rico and Washington State and two National Marine Sanctuaries.
“Removing derelict gear from the oceans will reduce bycatch of threatened marine mammals and sea turtles, save fishermen time and money, and make U.S. waterways safer to navigate,” said Executive Director and CEO of NFWF, Jeff Trandahl.
Fishing for Energy
Fishing for Energy provides a way for fishermen to responsibly dispose of old and derelict fishing equipment before it becomes ghost gear.
Paul Gilman, chief sustainability officer at Covanta Energy said, “Since 2008, Covanta and our Fishing for Energy partners have helped collect more than 3.5 million pounds of derelict fishing gear and marine debris, and used it to generate clean energy for thousands of homes and businesses across the country.”
The U.N. commits to Fighting Ghost Gear
Acknowledging that much lost fishing gear is a result of unintentional accident, the U.N. has committed to a program to tag fishing nets. This allows authorities to trace lost gear back to original vessels. The intention is not to penalize fishers but to ensure accountability and proper disposal of lost gear. Tagging nets might also have a deterrent effect on illegal fishing.
Can High Tech Track Ghost Gear?
Fish Aggregating Devices, known as FADs have been used for years to attract fish, especially tuna, marlin and mahi-mahi. Their use is controversial, however new “smart FADs” that include sonar and GPS capabilities might play a part in finding ghost gear.
Attached to fishing nets, “smart FADs” can be tracked by satellite to wherever they are and if lost they could be found. This capability is not presently in place but shows that by exploiting existing technology, relatively low cost solutions can be implemented.
Ghost Gear Included in EU Campaign
“Ghost fishing” has been included in the European Union’s campaign to rid the world’s oceans of plastic pollution with the following recommendations:
- To offer financial incentives to fishermen to return unwanted nets.
- To expand the use of onboard technology to track and retrieve lost nets.
- Support research and development of biodegradable fishing nets.
“The EU must make tracking ghost fishing part of its new plastics strategy. The tragedy of ghost fishing must end,” said John Flack who sponsored the EU proposal.
India Mandates Change
The Indian Government has mandated that all fishing vessels return discarded fishing nets to shore. The law will be phased in during the present fishing season. Educating fishermen to the hazards of abandoned fishing gear is ongoing, along with the possibility of attaching tracking devices to fishing nets.
This follows on India’s vow to ban all single-use plastic products by 2022.
Underwater Drones are riding the wave of the Future
Oceanographers having been using ROVs or remotely operated vehicles for years to explore shipwrecks and the underwater world. However, these car-sized vehicles are expensive and require skilled operators in command and control centers on the surface. We have seen how small, inexpensive aerial drones have caught our fancy and taken to the skies like flocks of locusts. Are we now on a breaking wave of remotely operated “underwater drones” and can they help in the fight against ghost gear?
Deep Trekker thinks so, and they believe that their remotely operated, underwater drones can be successfully used to locate and remove marine debris.
NOAA Using Sail Drones In the Arctic
To understand the sophistication and potential applications of drones we need only to look at what NOAA is doing in the Arctic. Drones powered by sun and wind have navigated nearly 50,000 miles collecting a wide range of data for NOAA over the last four years.
The drones carry 18 sensors collecting data on air and water temperature, height of waves, ocean salinity, acidity and concentration of carbon dioxide. Plus they record the abundance of fish and the presence of marine mammals.
As yet there is no information on using the drones to locate ghost gear, however that would appear to be another potential application. (photo – NOAA)
Adidas Leads in Recycling Ghost Gear
Adidas, the German sportswear manufacturer, in partnership with Parley for the Oceans has been recycling plastic fishing nets recovered from the Indian Ocean into a new line of swimwear and running shoes.
Eric Liedtke, the head of Global Brands stated that it is Adidas’ goal to produce all of its footwear and apparel products from recycled plastic from the sea by 2024. Good on Adidas.
What Individuals Can Do?
See the Global Ghost Gear Initiative
Nearly 50,000 people have signed a World Animal Protection petition calling on supermarkets to pressure their seafood suppliers to act responsibly. Visit the Global Ghost Gear Initiative website and sign this petition today.
By Robert Frerck, Blue Ocean Network
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