Hidden problem of 'ghost gear': the abandoned fishing nets clogging up oceans

A new global initiative founded by World Animal Protection hopes to tackle the problem that’s killing animals and costing business

Over the weekend, boats, helicopters and airplanes searched up and down the southern California coast, hoping to rescue an 80ft blue whale spotted entangled in a 200ft fishing line.

Exact numbers are unknown, but the National Marine Fisheries Service reported an average of 11 entangled large whales per year from 2000 to 2012 along the US west coast. Around the world, seals, turtles, birds and fish are also injured and killed in the same way. Between 2002 and 2010, 870 nets recovered from Washington State alone contained more than 32,000 marine animals.

Fishing ‘ghost gear’

One cause of this problem is “ghost gear”, fishing gear that is lost and abandoned in the ocean. Thought to make up 10% of all marine litter, fishing gear can be lost accidentally during storms, but it can also be abandoned deliberately. Many ports lack the facilities to collect, recycle or trade nets and it’s simply cheaper and easier to throw them overboard.

Ghost gear isn’t just a problem for animal lovers, it’s a problem for the fishing industry too as it kills marketable produce, poses a threat to fishermen and divers, and clogs up harbours.

The SeaDoc Society, for example, has estimated just one abandoned net could kill almost $20,000 (£13,000) worth of Dungeness crab over 10 years. The Virginia Institute of Marine Science has estimated abandoned or lost crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay area capture 1.25m blue crabs annually.

Dungeness crabs
Dungeness crabs for sale at Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco Photograph: Eric Risberg/AP

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative

The fishing industry’s sustainability issues with by-catch and plastic pollution are relatively well reported, but the issue with ghost gear is less well known.

A new initiative that launches today in London, aimed at finding solutions, is hoping to change this. Founded by the NGO World Animal Protection, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) will bring together industry, governments, academics and charities.

Participants from the UK include the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; the Marine Stewardship Council; Sainsbury’s; Young’s Seafood (whose in-house marine biologist will be working on the initiative); and the charity Surfers Against Sewage.

The initiative will focus on evidence building, on the ground solutions and reviewing policy. Over the next few days a steering group made up of different sectors will be elected to run it, and it plans to meet annually to review progress and next steps.

Mike Baker, chief executive of World Animal Protection, says it’s been easy to get people in the industry to see the problem because of its commercial impact. However, a reluctance to be associated with another negative story has made it hard to get the industry to engage publicly.

Instead of waiting for public outrage and imposed solutions, Baker says the GGGI initiative can help industry players get ahead of the game. “In NGOs, and particularly in animal welfare, people highlight the problem and sort of contrast it as an issue that clashes with the interests of business. What we’re saying is that’s not the case and the most constructive thing we can do here is be part of forging the solutions. If it doesn’t work for industry, it doesn’t work.

“It’s so easy to highlight the problem, you can show pictures with seals being caught in nets with their heads being gouged, but actually solutions are what’s important,” says Baker.

It’s not waste

Key to finding these solutions will be a shift in perception so that used nets aren’t seen as a waste product but a raw material for something else. “Once it becomes a commodity worth having it becomes a business opportunity, and that changes the whole agenda,” says Baker.

Some companies are already embracing this approach. Net-Works, a collaboration between Interface, the Zoological Society of London and Aquafil, turns discarded fishing nets into carpet tiles and has long been cited as an example of the circular economy in action. But new examples are emerging.

The US Fishing for Energy partnership has collected 2.8m pounds of fishing gear from bins placed in 42 communities across the US since 2008 and turned this into enough electricity to power 182 homes for one year.

Sustainable skateboard retailer Bureo has set up a net collection programme with support from the Chilean government.

“[Fishermen] are the first to recognise [ghost gear] being a problem, but they have had limited options,” says Bureo co-founder, Ben Kneppers. “The additional infrastructure and cost required to discard the nets in a sound manner made this material a burden, especially for artisanal fishermen.”

Now, for every kg of net returned, Bureo allocates funds to local NGOs. It then transforms the old nets into skateboards.

No small fry

As the first fishery in Australia to sign up to GGGI, Northern Prawn Fishery’s CEO Annie Jarrett says it will work closely with World Animal Protection to report sightings and locations of ghost gear. Its fishermen are already involved in retrieving ghost gear and releasing marine animals from ghost gear as they come across it.

For a small charity like Surfers Against Sewage, with limited resources but an army of volunteers angry about ocean waste, the chance to be part of a global network sharing best practice and contacts was a “no-brainer” says project manager Dom Ferris.

It’s very early days for the GGGI but, in an ideal world, Baker would like to see recycling systems at every port; local solutions around each region of the world; major retailers reflecting the issue in its CSR and purchasing policies; and committed governments and industry.


Hannah Gould

The GuardianTramp

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