The menace of ghost netting

Green Party member Nick Bowett raises awareness of the disastrous consequences of abandoned fishing gear in the world's oceans and what can be done about it.

Ghost gear

Mstelfox (CC BY-SA 4.0)

Nick Bowett

Ghost gear is loose fishing gear which has been lost, voluntarily abandoned or dumped at sea by fishermen, and invariably goes on to maim and kill marine wildlife for no justifiable reason.  It is the deadliest form of plastic pollution in our oceans, so environmentalists should see avoiding its creation and clearing it up as a priority. Agreeing a strong global oceans treaty at the United Nations will take us a step closer to solving the problem of ghost gear.   

Ghost gear comprises 10 per cent of the world’s ocean plastic waste, and it takes centuries for it to disintegrate. Currently, over 600,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost, voluntarily abandoned or dumped in the oceans every year. Marine creatures such as whales, turtles or dolphins swim into ghost netting – which leads to lacerations, infections, starvation, suffocation or a combination of the above. As well as killing ocean wildlife, ghost fishing gear threatens general food security and the livelihoods of millions around the world who depend on the oceans as a source of food.

A further danger of ghost nets is the fact that they shed microplastics as they disintegrate. Phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants found in the ocean, play a role in the process of sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere via photosynthesis. Leading scientists are concerned that microplastics significantly interfere with this process, thereby worsening climate change by lessening the ocean’s ability to absorb and hold carbon dioxide.  

The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) are key international conventions which tackle the problem of ghost gear. For example, the latter (which came into force in 1988) bans plastic disposal at sea and requires ports and terminals to provide waste disposal facilities for ship waste. Unfortunately, even within the territories of countries that have signed up to agreements which address the problem of ghost gear, large amounts of fishing gear are still lost, voluntarily abandoned and sometimes dumped at sea, so, in some ways, the current agreements don’t go far enough to address the problem.

Recently, productive steps have been made on the international stage towards dealing with the ghost gear issue. Earlier this year, G7 countries agreed to step up international action to address the scourge of ghost gear.  They agreed to support various organisations such as the Ghost Gear Initiative and to consider the recommendations of the report: ‘Towards G7 Action to Combat Ghost Fishing Gear’. This is a comprehensive UK-commissioned report which looks at the best practices to address the problem. Helpful recommendations in the report include: mandatory marking of fishing gear which helps prevent loss of fishing gear and assists in recovery if lost, improving fishing gear disposal facilities and developing reporting and retrieval policies.  

Within the UK, the Marine Management Organisation (MMO) makes the reporting of lost fishing gear mandatory and instructs fishermen to mark their gear appropriately.  Responsibility starts at home, so we need to ensure all UK fishermen accord with the rules set out by the MMO. In my opinion, enforcement should be strengthened by increasing fines for dumping (as this is a particularly heinous form of litter) or failing to report the loss of fishing gear at sea. Creative thinking and innovative technologies could make the UK a leader at preventing the creation of ghost gear by providing a blueprint for the rest of the world.  

Getting to grips with the issue of ghost netting will not only allow marine life to swim through our oceans unharmed, it will also support people who depend on the ocean as a source of food and enhance global food security. We need to be aware of the consequences of losing, voluntarily abandoning or dumping fishing gear, so that we can urge our governments to address the problem with gusto and sign up to new, more dynamic international agreements when they arise.