Ghost Gear Busters!

We’re all familiar with some of the impacts that active fishing gear can have on marine wildlife and habitat. But did you know that this gear can keep on fishing, all on its own, long after it’s lost or abandoned?

Almost anyone who’s gone diving in New England has seen lost lobster traps, lines, and pieces of nets on the ocean floor. This abandoned or lost fishing gear is just one of many types of marine debris that litter our coasts and oceans. It’s often called “ghost gear,” and it’s responsible for “ghost fishing.”

The term “ghost fishing” first gained global attention at the 16th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries in April 1985. In 2009, the FAO published a full study of what it calls “Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.”  The report notes how difficult it is to estimate how much ghost gear is out there. But with some anecdotal reports saying New England lobster fishermen, for example, may lose around 20 percent of their pots each year, it’s likely to be a lot.

Very little of this gear is intentionally discarded by fishermen. Vandalism, gear conflicts, and tough fishing conditions are likely responsible for a large portion of gear loss, and storms and strong currents also play a big role in dislodging fishing gear. The 2004 tsunami, for example, caused a major loss of gear and a debris problem in the Indian Ocean. In the northeast, Superstorm Sandy dislodged lots of fishing gear, which NOAA is now working to map and assess.

It’s also unclear exactly how much harm all this ghost gear is causing. We know that ghost gear continues catching fish, marine mammals, and sea turtles—including endangered species—long after it is abandoned. We also know that it can physically harm fragile bottom habitat like corals and kelp and that it can carry invasive species from one region to another. In addition to these environmental issues, ghost gear can create navigational hazards and safety problems and can interact negatively with active fishing gear. Some studies have attempted to quantify the effects of certain types of gear in certain areas, but without knowing how much ghost gear is in the ocean, it’s hard to know exactly what the impacts are.

The good news is that a strong community of divers, fishermen, conservationists, and other stakeholders has formed to remove this debris from the ocean and mitigate the effects of ghost fishing. NOAA’s Marine Debris Program, created in 2006, provides technical advice and information to partner groups interested in removing marine debris. To date, it has collected more than 2.1 million pounds of gear.

Here in New England, its partner groups include Fishing for Energy, a partnership that works in two ways to mitigate the ghost fishing problem—first, by providing bins at ports for fishermen to easily dispose of derelict gear, and second, by providing funding to partnerships to remove marine debris. Recently, Fishing for Energy partnered with the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies and fishing crews from Cape Cod to remove nearly ten tons of ghost fishing gear, including 320 lobster traps.

Other groups like the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean have also been working to assess and remove marine debris in the Gulf of Maine for years. You can even get involved by conducting your own debris cleanup—whether walking on the shore or diving beneath the waves—and sending in information to be added to their database.

We still have a lot to learn about what ghost gear and other debris is out there, where we can find it, and what sort of impacts it’s having on marine ecosystems. In the meantime, collaborations between all ocean users can help lessen the impacts of ghost fishing.

Image credit: J. Cummings