Ghosts of the Abyss

James Beard's latest Blog highlights the impact of ghost fishing gear on the world's oceans and marine life, and discusses ways to alleviate damage caused by these waste products.

Recent years have seen the issue of plastic pollution move rapidly to the forefront of the public’s consciousness. In a short period of time the average consumer has gone from being largely ignorant of the issue of marine plastics to reaching for their reusable coffee cup and their paper straws, all in the name of protecting our oceans, lakes and rivers. And rightly so; our oceans are facing a plethora of challenges ranging from climate change (Climate Change Impacts on Corals), loss of biodiversity as well as the ever-increasing amount of plastic we find there.

Extended producer responsibility

The upcoming changes to packaging producer responsibility will help reduce the role that packaging plays in these issues, but actions such as the introduction of the Plastic TaxDeposit Return Schemes and EPR only address the tip of the iceberg; there is a source of plastic that is potentially far more damaging, insidious and widespread than carrier bags and cotton buds.

Ghost fishing gear – A major contributor to marine plastic

One of the major contributors to the issue of marine plastic is abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) known as “ghost gear”. The Henderson Island Expedition that I was fortunate to be a part of in 2019 found that 60% of the plastic on the world’s most polluted beach came from the fishing industry, whilst Greenpeace estimate that ghost gear accounts for 85% of the plastic found in the Pacific garbage patch. And what makes ghost gear a particular problem isn’t just that it is ubiquitous, but that it is designed to kill and trap marine life and will continue to do so long after it has been lost.

Improving fishing gear design and fishing practices

Collaboration is key. It must be accepted that no fishers want to lose their gear and so it is important to understand the main causes of lost gear and work on innovative ways to improve gear design and fishing practices to limit the potential for loss at sea. At the same time, consideration must be given to what happens when gear reaches the end of its useful life as very little fishing gear is currently recycled. A 2018 report suggests that as little as 1.5% is recycled within the EU, and familiar barriers such as the mixing of polymers, high cost of sorting and lack of recycling capacity combine to keep these rates low. However, there are success stories which can be replicated. Iceland, for example, has seen collection rates of end-of-life fishing gear at 59%, with recycling rates of what has been collected at around 90%. Whilst the Icelandic government has the legal power to collect fees on all fishing gear sold, this approach is currently waived in favour of an industry led approach.

Developing new uses for old fishing gear

Developing uses for old fishing gear is key, and closer to home there are several projects aiming to do just that. Odyssey Innovation are already using recycled PE trawl nets and nylon gill nets to create kayaks whilst Brixham Trawl Makers are investigating ways of separating and reusing the plastic and steel elements of fishing gear. By developing these end of life uses and learning what has been successful elsewhere we can start to exorcise the ghosts that haunt our seas.