Ghost Gear Pollution

“Ghost-fishing” sounds spooky, right? 

Well, it is spooky indeed. Lost nets or other fishing devices float though our oceans and keep fishing, without ever being retrieved. The dead animals in the “ghost gear” attract predators that are likely to get entangled as well. A vicious circle, indeed. :/ 

“Ghost gear” refers to any fishing gear that has been, lost in the ocean and is the most harmful form of marine Litter (GGGI, 2021). Every year more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles get caught in abandoned or lost lines, traps, and fishing nets (ghost nets). Moreover, ghost gear is directly responsible for about 10% of the decline in fish stock levels globally. Made of durable material, ghost gear can take up to 600 years to “break down”.  (Breaking down into small pieces that are then Micro- or Nanoplastics and harm the marine environment in different ways.)

Unfortunately, these are not the only problems. Derelict gear can also alter seabed and marine environments. It can create problems for navigation when ships get their propellers caught in it, in the worst cases leading to capsizing and fatalities. Ghost gear can also be washed up on the beach as litter, becoming a danger to birds and other coastal species and a health and safety hazard for beachgoers. Countries around the world are making great efforts to improve the management of fish stocks, and these efforts are drastically undermined by the impacts of ghost fishing. 

How does ghost gear reach the ocean? 

There are many different ways that fishing gear can end up in the ocean. Storms or bad weather can sweep it off of boats into the water. The marine environment itself can cause fishing gear to break, or fishing gear may become so entangled in other objects in the ocean that it becomes too difficult to retrieve. Some fishing gear may have unclear ownership and, therefore, be abandoned without repercussion. Sometimes there may be no adequate facilities in ports for boats to dispose of their end-of-life gear. Fishing gear may also be deliberately dumped as part of illegal fishing or simply be the result of accidents and human error.

What else can be done? (We mean apart from the efforts of Fishing4Ghosts)

1.       Mark the gear

Marking gear enables identification of ownership and encourages responsible management of fishing gear. It can be a good way to identify and understand where recovered gear originally came from and return it to its owner, not just to identify offenders. Like many things, investing in the prevention of the problem through best practices, such as gear marking, may be more cost-effective than the clean-up required after gear is already lost. This is generally a better way of reducing ALDFG debris and its impacts.

2.      Improve reporting and recovery

Lost gear should be reported so that recovery efforts can be made. However, many vessels may not be able to retrieve the gear themselves because they lack the appropriate equipment or because it would be dangerous for the crew. Other vessels do not report losses because of fear of blame. A “no-blame” approach could be adopted to remove the vessel’s liability for losses. Incentivised retrieval schemes could also be implemented so that vessels that are equipped to do so bring back not only their own gear but other lost gear that they encounter at sea.  Authorities could play a bigger role in supporting recovery efforts and enforcing adherence to internationally-binding instruments, such as the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships(known as MARPOL), that require lost gear to be reported.

3.     Stop illegal fishing

Although some gear is indeed lost by accident, some gear is abandoned as part of illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing. IUU fishing vessels sometimes dump their fishing gear when patrol vessels are nearby or when they have been denied entry to a port. These ships are also less likely to report gear that may have been lost due to extreme weather conditions or human error.

4.     Give economic incentives for prevention

Some fishing gear may not be worth very much monetarily; therefore fishers have little incentive to look after it appropriately or retrieve it when lost. Introducing schemes which add value to end-of-life fishing gear or create economic incentives for returning gear to appropriate disposal or recycling facilities could be a way to make this option attractive to fishers.

5.       Invest in new technologies  

Certain types of fishing gear can be quite expensive so, in some cases, fishers will go to great lengths to retrieve it. New technologies that use transponders and can be tracked by Global Positioning Systems (GPS) can make retrieval easier. Weather monitoring technology helps prevention efforts, as it can help fishers know when there will be bad weather so they can avoid setting their nets.

6.       Improve collection, disposal and recycling schemes

Ports should be equipped with low-cost or free facilities to dispose of or recycle fishing gear. The existence of such facilities and providing boats with appropriate disposal bags on board can help solve the issue of where to put the gear once it is no longer wanted or once it has been retrieved from the oceans. There are a growing number of products, including clothing, carpet tiles, swim wear and sports equipment, now being made out of recycled fishing gear, but there is a need for more facilities with the ability to recycle the specific type of plastic used in fishing gear.

It is estimated that about ten percent of the world’s population depends on fisheries and aquaculture for their livelihoods. The more illegal or ghost fishing occurs, the fewer resources fishers have to earn a living and secure food sources.

Further Readings:

  • Website of “Global Ghost Gear Initiative” (GGGI) ->
  • Brown, J., G. Macfadyen, T. Huntington, J. Magnus and J. Tumilty (2005). Ghost Fishing by Lost Fishing Gear. Final Report to DG Fisheries and Maritime Affairs of the European Commission. Fish/2004/20. Institute for European Environmental Policy / Poseidon Aquatic Resource Management Ltd joint report
  • FAO (2016). Report of the Expert consultation on the Marking of Fishing Gear, Rome, Italy, 4–7 April 2016. FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Report No. 1157. Rome, Italy
  • Gilman, E. (2015). Status of international monitoring and management of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear and ghost fishing. Marine Policy 60 (2015) 225–239
  • Macfadyen, G., T. Huntington and R. Cappell (2009). Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies, No. 185; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, No. 523. Rome, UNEP/FAO. 2009. 115p