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Ocean Currents

Joining Forces With the United States to Tackle Ghost Gear

Learn how the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is collaborating with the United States to prevent the most harmful form of marine debris

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© Matt Gilbert/Ocean Conservancy

Over the past few months, I’ve been thinking a lot about the importance of collaboration in conservation work. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative® (GGGI) recently published it’s 2019 Annual Report, and as I reflected on our successes, I was struck by how little of it would have been possible without dozens of different people and groups devising creative solutions together. Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG, or ghost gear) in our ocean is a global problem that impacts ecosystems, fish stocks and fisher livelihoods everywhere. Tackling it takes teamwork.

In that spirit of collaboration, I’m proud to announce today that the United States is joining the GGGI, a milestone about which we are all incredibly excited. By signing on to the Initiative, the United States joins more than 100 member organizations including 15 other national governments and 13 U.S.-based fishing and seafood companies signaling their commitment to tackling the issue domestically and internationally.

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© Joel Baziuk

Research published by Ocean Conservancy in 2016 found that ghost gear is the single deadliest form of marine debris to sea life, continuing to catch and kill organisms long after it has been lost or discarded in the ocean. It is also one of the most prevalent: recent studies indicate that ghost gear makes up 46-70% of all floating macroplastics in the ocean by weight. Launched in 2015 and a part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas® program since 2019, the GGGI is the only cross-sectoral alliance that addresses this problem worldwide. Through the collective impact of its members spanning across the private and public sectors, the GGGI aims to reduce the ecological and economic impacts of ghost gear through prevention, mitigation and removals.

As the world’s largest economy and a major fishing nation, the United States is uniquely positioned to make a difference on this issue. The United States is one of the top seven capture fishery producers globally, making up 6% of the world’s total catch production, and accounts for 19% of the world’s total seafood consumption. Fisheries across the country are impacted by ghost gear: in New England, fishers report losing 10-30% of their lobster traps, lines and buoys annually; while in the Gulf of Mexico, an estimated 250,000 derelict crab traps are lost each year.

The GGGI has worked with groups across the United States since the initiative’s inception. In 2019, the GGGI, together with 11th Hour Racing, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, local lobstermen and expert salvage divers, removed a 20,000-pound gear ball from the seafloor just off Cape Elizabeth Lighthouse in the Gulf of Maine. End-of-life gear can also be a substantial problem for communities in remote areas in the U.S., such as the Aleutian and the Pribilof Islands in Alaska, where the GGGI and Ocean Conservancy are working with key stakeholders—including Tribes, other NGOs, seafood companies, and local governments—to recover and remove ghost gear.

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© Patricia Chambers

This milestone is the culmination of years of formal and informal collaboration with the U.S. government, private sector actors and a suite of academic institutions and nonprofits. The United States provided critical support for the development of the UN FAO Voluntary Guidelines for the Marking of Fishing Gear (VGMFG), a key governing document for the prevention of ghost gear. The U.S. Department of State has worked with the GGGI since 2018 via a grant-funded project in the Caribbean to promote best gear management practices and lead efforts to use innovative fishing gear technologies to prevent ghost gear from occurring and making gear recovery easier and quicker. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has been a supporter of the GGGI since 2016 and worked to help shape the initiative’s trajectory by serving on its Steering Group for two consecutive years.

But even more than celebrating the fruits of our collaboration to date, this partnership brings important prospects and opportunities for the future. As a GGGI signatory government, the United States will continue to support the mission areas of the initiative, including implementing best practices for the marking, tracking and reporting of fishing gear; mapping lost gear hotspot areas; developing methods and markets for the recycling of end-of-life gear; and retrieving ghost gear in sensitive habitats and key fishing grounds.

This is an incredible milestone for the GGGI and we hope it creates a sea change for the issue. As awareness of the ghost gear threat has grown, we’ve been heartened to see important governments from key fishing nations come together to take action. We have welcomed U.S. support and leadership on the issue to date, and we’re excited to have the United States on board as a GGGI member to expand our partnership to protect our ocean in the years to come.

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