How to stop ghost fishing gear haunting our oceans

by Joanna Toole, World Animal Protection
Friday, 8 July 2016 14:13 GMT

Plastic waste is seen at the plastic waste exhibition "Sea, The Last Leg" in down town Amman, November 19, 2014. The plastic waste exhibition was put together by the Royal Society for the Protection of the Marine Environment through their cleaning campaigns which were carried out along the beaches and the Gulf of Aqaba. The first of its kind in Jordan, the exhibition aims to raise awareness and advocate the responsible use of plastic in everyday life, as well as the dangers plastic waste poses to not just the Gulf of Aqaba but the world's oceans. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Lost or discarded fishing gear is responsible for a 10 percent reduction in global fish stocks

Oceans are the lifeblood of our planet. They drive our climate, supply our food and play a critical social, environmental and economic role, with ocean-based business contributing more than $500 billion to the world’s economy.

But our oceans and the marine animals that live within them are increasingly in danger, as they are slowly being filled with rubbish. It is estimated that 6.4 million tonnes of litter end up in our seas each year, and 10 percent of that is fishing gear.

Recent research revealed that of the top 20 most commonly found items of marine litter, abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, also known as “ghost gear” poses the deadliest threat to marine animals.

Every year, millions of animals, including whales, seals, turtles and birds, are being injured and killed by ghost gear. This gear continues to fish and trap animals, and once entangled, animals can drown within minutes or suffer long, slow deaths lasting months or even years.

And ghost gear is not just a problem for animals - it’s a problem for the entire fishing industry too.

On a global scale, ghost gear is responsible for a 10 percent reduction in fish stocks. This is bad news for an industry, which in many parts of the world is already struggling with diminishing fish stocks.

It is also costing governments and marine industries many millions of dollars annually in clean-up expenses and lost fishing time. The estimated clean-up cost in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) region ranges from $100 to $25,000 per tonne.

As well as the huge scale of waste, there is also a risk to human health. Made of durable plastic, ghost gear can persist in the oceans for up to 600 years. The gear that does break down becomes ‘microplastics’ – minute plastic granules found distributed throughout the oceans which enter the food chain and end up in the fish we eat.

With so many risks posed, urgent, high-level and global action is needed. The United Nations has previously adopted international conventions which prohibit the discarding of fishing gear (MARPOL), and the U.N. General Assembly has called for action to prevent and reduce ghost gear every year since 2005. However, despite these efforts, the volume and impact of ghost gear is increasing.

The world now has Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) which U.N. member states are expected to use to frame their agendas and political policies over the next 15 years. One of these goals calls for a significant reduction in marine debris by 2025 - and one very real opportunity to do that is at the upcoming 32nd session of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s Committee on Fisheries (COFI).

COFI is the only global inter-governmental forum where major international fisheries and aquaculture issues are examined, recommendations made and global agreements between governments negotiated.

This July, one of the proposals on the table is a system for the marking of fishing gear. It may sound simple, but such a system would allow a practical means of locating and identifying the ownership of fishing gear.

As it stands, the majority of countries do not impose gear-marking requirements on their fisheries. This results in limited means of ensuring that gear owners take responsibility for any gear they lose, including taking appropriate actions to ensure it is retrieved. 

What we know is that the majority of fishermen do not want to lose their gear; it is expensive and can cause a loss in valuable fishing time. Bad weather and interactions with other fishing gear are common reasons for accidental gear loss.

But in some cases fishermen deliberately dispose of their gear in the ocean to free up space on-board for their catch, to cut fuel costs, to avoid the costs involved in port disposal or because of a lack of port disposal facilities in the first place.

Regardless of whether gear loss is deliberate or accidental, identifiable fishing gear is less likely to be deliberately discarded or abandoned, and can assist fishermen who wish to retrieve lost gear.

World Animal Protection is helping to tackle this problem through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) it created. This cross-sectoral alliance is the first initiative of its kind to bring together governments, the fishing industry, seafood companies, non-profit organisations and academics to tackle the issue globally.

Launched in late 2015, the GGGI is working to develop solutions, define and inform industry and government policies, and better evidence the problem in different parts of the world.

By uniting global efforts to tackle ghost fishing gear, it is hoped the U.N.’s goal of reducing marine litter by 2025 will be realised, and ghost gear will no longer pose a threat to the oceans or the animals and people who depend on them. Member states have an opportunity at COFI to take real action on this issue - we hope they use it.

Joanna Toole is wildlife campaign manager at World Animal Protection.