News and opinion

Managing the impacts of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear

October 31, 2018

Ghost fishing nets with shell caught in them

It’s not uncommon to lose fishing nets, lines and pots at sea. Boats can lose control of their fishing gear when it becomes snagged, lost in bad weather or if it is damaged during fishing.  

This wasn’t a problem when fishing gear was made from biodegradable materials. Now, most fishing gear is made from plastic. Once in the ocean, plastic monofilament fishing line can take up to 600 years to degrade. Lost gear can drift through the depths catching whatever crosses its path, entangling and killing ocean life, also known as ghost fishing. Fishing nets can smother a coral reef and crab pots can continue trapping marine creatures on the ocean floor. 

Recent research has revealed the scale of this problem. The FAO estimates that at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost each year and that fishing gear makes up 10% of all marine debris. A recent paper, published in Nature found that 46% of all the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is thought to be fishing nets. 

The MSC Fisheries Standard and gear loss

In the MSC Fisheries Standard, the impact of ghost gear is considered in different components of Principle 2, in particular in sections covering habitat impact management and accounting for mortality of unwanted catch. If a fishery is to be considered best practice by the Fisheries Standard they should have knowledge of the scale of gear loss and the impact of this lost gear on habitats, ecosystems or species of concern.

If you want to know more, you can read the MSC’s intent on ghost gear in the Fisheries Standard, described in box GSA7.

What is the MSC doing in this area? 

The MSC is working with stakeholders, including NGOs, fishery managers and scientists, on this issue to see if there are improvements needed in Fisheries Standard for the requirements around ghost gear. Although no change is certain, this work will be focussed on reviewing how ghost gear impact has been considered by auditors assessing fisheries against the Standard. The MSC will also reflect on current scientific understanding of this issue.

Fisheries taking action

Several MSC certified fisheries have introduced ways to manage ghost gear impacts. When the Alaska Pacific cod fisheries became MSC certified, they were required to monitor gear loss to maintain their certification. They also assessed the impacts of lost gear on ecosystems. These fisheries monitored the impacts and loss of their long lines, pots and trawl nets. Cod fishing pots in these fisheries have biodegradable escape panels and escape rings to minimise ghost fishing.

In the MSC certified Normandy and Jersey lobster fisheries, all pots are tagged with boat registration and year. Fishers must report lost pots and only a limited number of replacement tags are available. This system motivates fishers not to lose their pots. 

Within a Louisiana blue crab fishery with MSC certification, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries, volunteers and local organizations have successfully removed and disposed of over 37,101 abandoned and derelict crab traps.

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