Ghost Fishing Gear: A Major Source of Marine Plastic Pollution

Reading Time: 5 minutes

(Disponible en français : Engins de pêche fantômes : une source majeure de pollution marine par le plastique)

Plastic pollution in marine environments is a global problem of increasing concern. Commercial fishing activities represent one of the main sources of ocean-based plastic pollution, along with shipping operations. The fishing industry uses large quantities of fishing gear comprised of a combination of materials designed for durability, affordability and flexibility, such as nylon monofilament gill nets and vinyl-coated steel lobster traps (Figure 1).

“Ghost” (or derelict) fishing gear is gear that has been abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded at sea. Ghost fishing gear is estimated to make up 46% to 70% of all macroplastic marine debris by weight. Every year, an estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enter the world’s oceans, with significant impacts on marine life.

Figure 1 – Plastic-Based Fishing Gear

Figure 1 shows the deployment of a gill net (left) and lobster traps (right), two types of plastic-based commercial fishing gear

Gill net (left) and lobster traps (right).
Sources: Fisheries and Oceans Canada,
Commercial salmon gear types; and This Fish, Lobster by Trap.

Fishing gear, such as nets, lines and traps, can end up as ghost gear as a result of

  • severe weather;
  • entanglements with gear used by other marine industries, such as aquaculture and shipping; or
  • simple wear and tear.

One key driver of the rise of ghost gear worldwide is illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, especially in the high seas. Vessels conducting IUU fishing frequently dump their gear to evade detection, destroy evidence and ensure port access.

Impacts on marine environments

Ghost gear may persist in marine environments for hundreds of years and can continue to trap fish, marine mammals and birds while drifting in ocean currents or lying on the sea floor. A 2010 study analyzed 870 recovered fishing nets off the coast of Washington State, United States. The study found that the ghost gear contained over 32,000 marine organisms, including 1,036 fishes, 514 birds and 23 marine mammals.

Due to ocean currents, ghost gear can travel long distances. For example, although the impacts of ghost gear in the Arctic Ocean have not been consistently documented, a 2019 study by the Arctic Council showed that plastic pollution is building up in the Arctic, a region with few commercial fisheries and far from highly populated areas (Figure 2). As a result, the Arctic Council set a special focus on marine plastic pollution during Iceland’s 2019–2021 chairmanship.

Figure 2 – Plastic Input into the Arctic Ocean

Figure 2 illustrates ocean circulation for the Arctic, North Atlantic and North Pacific oceans; the Beaufort Gyre and Transpolar Drift; other cold and warm ocean currents; and the sea ice extent summer minimum in 2018. Also depicted are the major river basins in the Arctic watershed and the major river discharge levels. The figure shows the low population density of the Arctic region (1 to 5 inhabitants per km2 in the western Russian Arctic and in localized spots in the Norwegian Arctic, and under 1 inhabitant per km2 elsewhere). The figure also shows that high fishing intensity takes place in the waters off the coasts of western Russia, Norway, Iceland, southern Greenland and Alaska, as well as in waters bordering the northeastern tip of the Asian continent and the northwestern tip of the North American continent. The figure shows that high marine plastic pollution levels were found in samples taken from Northern Fulmars in northern Norway, the Faroe Islands, Iceland, Svalbard and Alaska. The lowest levels of plastic contamination were detected in samples of Northern Fulmars in the Canadian Arctic.Source: Philippe Rekacewicz, Riccardo Pravettoni and Nieves Lopez Izquierdo, Plastic input into the Arctic Ocean, UN Environment and GRID-Arendal, 2019.

Impacts on coastal economies

In addition to causing adverse environmental impacts, marine plastic pollution and ghost gear also negatively affect coastal economies. Ghost gear costs governments and coastal communities millions of dollars annually in clean-up expenses and lost fishing time. Major categories of cost to the fishing industry include decreased harvests, increased fishing effort and damage to gear and fish habitat.

In fact, about 10% of the global decline in fish stocks has been attributed to the presence of ghost gear – a significant percentage given that many stocks are already overfished. With the decline of fish stocks, the cost of maintaining catch levels increases for fishers.

For example, according to a 2016 report, the Dungeness crab fishery in British Columbia experiences an annual gear loss of 11%. The mortality of Dungeness crabs caused by ghost gear was estimated to be around 9% of the harvest. Another study reported that, globally, US$831 million in landings could be recovered annually by removing less than 10% of ghost pots and traps from major crustacean fisheries.

Tackling marine plastic pollution and ghost fishing gear

Recognizing the damaging impacts of ghost gear to the sustainability of Canadian fisheries and coastal economies, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) and commercial fish harvesters have collaborated on a range of initiatives to reduce marine plastic pollution.

A. Ghost gear reporting

Data collection on lost and retrieved fishing gear is vital to identifying ghost gear hotspots. Therefore, DFO has made reporting lost gear a condition under the Fisheries Act for an expanding number of fisheries. Since 2018, all fixed-gear fisheries in Atlantic Canada, including crab and lobster, are required to report lost and retrieved gear. DFO noted that there have been over 1,000 reports of lost fishing gear in 2019 in the Gulf of St. Lawrence alone.

B. Ghost gear retrieval

In 2019, the Government of Canada announced the creation of a Sustainable Fisheries Solutions and Retrieval Support Contribution Program (SFSRSCP). The program financially supports fish harvesters and coastal communities in ghost gear retrieval and disposal operations.

Commercial fish harvesters play a crucial role in ensuring the success of marine stewardship initiatives.

In New Brunswick, for example, the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association (FNFA) has been conducting ghost gear retrieval operations since 2008. The FNFA has also developed protocols with other marine industries to reduce gear loss due to ship traffic in Saint John Harbour. In Prince Edward Island, the Western Gulf Fishermen’s Association has been assisting DFO with lost gear retrieval for several years. In 2019, more than 50 lobster traps were recovered, some of which were full of lobsters.

C. Innovative technologies to reduce gear loss

Ghost gear retrieval is labour and fuel intensive. Therefore, in addition to the SFSRSCP, DFO launched two plastic challenges to encourage small businesses to develop innovative technologies to retrieve ghost gear and reduce future gear loss. In April 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 (Figure 3).

Figure 3 – Ropeless Fishing Traps

This figure illustrates ropeless fishing traps, a technological innovation by Ashored Innovations, a company in Nova Scotia. The ropeless fishing system, designed for the lobster and crab fisheries, is activated acoustically.

Note: The ropeless fishing system, designed for the lobster and crab fisheries, is activated acoustically.
Source: Ashored.

DFO has also announced a Gear Innovation Summit, to be held in February 2020. The summit is expected to include discussions on technological solutions to mitigate ghost gear impacts and to minimize fishing gear loss.

D. International commitments and partnerships

Given the global nature of marine plastic pollution and ghost gear, the Government of Canada has been active in mobilizing international action to address these issues. At the 2018 Group of Seven summit in Charlevoix, Canada put forward an Ocean Plastics Charter endorsed by over 20 countries and 60 businesses and organizations. The charter partners committed to adopting a life-cycle approach to plastics management – including ghost gear – and to increase investments for coastal clean-up activities.

In 2018, the Government of Canada also entered into a partnership with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), an international alliance launched in 2015 that tackles the problem of ghost gear on a global scale. The GGGI has developed a Best Practice Framework for Fishing Gear Management to provide fishers, seafood processors, gear manufacturers and regulating authorities with guidance to help reduce gear loss and mitigate the impacts of ghost gear.

Author: Thai Nguyen, Library of Parliament

Categories: Agriculture, environment, fisheries and natural resources

Tags: , , , , , ,