When you think of marine debris, what comes to mind? Is it plastic straws? Grocery bags? Beverage bottles? Although these single-use plastics are a significant part of the marine debris problem, there are other types of marine debris that lurk beneath the surface.
Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), better known as ghost gear, is a widespread—and the deadliest—form of marine debris. Although it’s true that any trash is bad news for our ocean, ghost gear stands out among the rest: it’s the most harmful type of marine debris, and yet many people have never heard of it.
Here at Ocean Conservancy we’re working tirelessly to keep our ocean free from trash, and that includes ghost gear. Read on to learn what ghost gear is, why it’s a problem and how we’re working with partners around the world to combat it.
“Ghost gear” is any fishing gear that is abandoned, lost or discarded in marine environments. This includes fishing nets, long lines, fish traps, lobster pots or any other human-made device used to catch marine animals. Fishing gear is designed to trap marine organisms, and it can continue to do so long after the gear is lost or discarded in the ocean. When lost fishing gear keeps catching fish after its intended lifespan, it is called ghost fishing.
Ghost gear can enter the water in a number of ways, including getting snagged on rocks or coral, being accidentally cut loose by other marine traffic, being swept away and lost during storms, or intentionally discarded by illegal fishers to hide the evidence of illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing activity or because they were denied entry to port. No matter the cause, the effect of all ghost gear is the same: it pollutes the ocean, impacts the sustainability of our fisheries and threatens marine animals and the ecosystems they depend on.
Countless marine organisms are threatened by ghost gear. For example, commercially harvestable species such as fish, crabs and lobsters can get caught in lost traps, unable to escape, causing significant economic loss and threatening global food security. Turtles, dolphins, sharks, sea birds and more can get entangled in or ingest plastic fishing line, preventing them from swimming or hunting. And coral reef and seagrass ecosystems can be smothered by heavy, immobile masses of tangled gear.
Ghost gear threatens marine ecosystems around the world—from shallow coral reefs to deep water landscapes. Conservative estimates suggest 640,000 to 800,000 tons of fishing gear is lost annually worldwide, which could account for at least 10% of all plastic pollution and perhaps as much as 70% of all macro plastics when estimated by weight in our ocean. In the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary alone, an area smaller than the state of Connecticut, scientists suspect there are over a million abandoned lobster and crab pots (compared to 85,000 active pots!). And ghost gear threatens species that are already at risk—an estimated 45% of the marine mammals listed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List have been negatively affected by ghost gear.
In a study in the infamous North Pacific Gyre (also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch), nearly half of all large plastic debris found at the surface was ghost gear (measured by weight). Recent studies show that ghost gear is four times more likely to harm marine life through entanglement than all other forms of marine debris combined, which has staggering implications for food security, fisheries sustainability and ultimately, the bottom line of the fishing industry.
It’s clear that combatting ghost gear is one of the most pressing issues facing the field of marine conservation today. The question is, how do we begin to tackle this massive problem? Thankfully, Ocean Conservancy is partnering with organizations around the world to do just that.
Tackling a complicated problem like ghost gear takes collaboration, creativity and hard work. Here at Ocean Conservancy, we’re at the frontlines of developing and supporting innovative solutions to combat ghost fishing. Through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) we’re working with partners around the world to both remove ghost gear that is currently lost in our ocean, and prevent more from being discarded in the future.
Beginning in 2019, Ocean Conservancy became the host organization of the GGGI. The GGGI is the first global alliance of its kind dedicated to tackling the problem of ghost fishing gear by building evidence about the extent of the problem; defining and implementing practices and informing policies that prevent gear from getting lost; and developing and scaling innovative holistic solution projects at various sites around the world. GGGI brings many different stakeholders to the discussion, including representatives from the fisheries sector, seafood and gear industry, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), academia, governments, UN agencies and more. The initiative serves as a global clearinghouse for information on ghost gear, catalyzing practical and replicable solutions for both the removal and prevention of ghost gear.
“We simply cannot address the ocean plastic crisis without addressing the threat of ghost gear, which is why we are so thrilled to take on this important partnership. Whether it’s lost at sea during storms or dumped illegally to avoid fines or legal action, the outcomes are the same: marine animals and commercially valuable fish are killed and vital underwater habitats destroyed as ghost gear drifts throughout the world’s ocean. And these items—nets, long lines, fish traps, lobster pots—are a major contributor to ocean plastic.”Senior Director, Trash Free Seas® Program
With this new endeavor, we are prepared to steer the GGGI through the next years of leading the fight against ghost gear, and will actively work toward growing the initiative and continuing to scale up its impact and influence worldwide.
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