By Silvia Mantilla, World Federation for Animals, and Livia Schonenberg, Aquatic Life Institute

5 June marks the 50th World Environment Day, and this year’s theme is ‘Solutions to Plastic Pollution.’ This Day serves as a crucial reminder that urgent action is needed to combat the global plastic waste epidemic.

Over the years, plastic pollution has emerged as one of the greatest threats to our oceans, posing a severe threat to animal welfare and sustainability. An estimate for 2010 showed that around 3% of global annual plastics waste enters the oceans, equivalent to a staggering 8 million tonnes, with amounts increasing in the decade since. This destroys marine ecosystems, inflicts harm on countless marine species, and jeopardizes their overall well-being. By reducing marine ecosystems’ ability to sequester carbon and directly emitting greenhouse gases (GHGs) in production and decomposition, marine plastic waste also contributes to climate change.

Marine fisheries: a significant source of plastic waste in our oceans

While the discussion surrounding marine plastic pollution has largely focused on land-based sources, such as households and industry, a major and often overlooked contributor to ocean plastic waste is marine capture fisheries. Marine fisheries contribute to plastic pollution primarily through the abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), such as nets, lines, ropes, and traps used to catch 2-3 trillion fish and other aquatic animals each year. Commercial industrial fishing is the primary source of ALDFG in the oceans.

‘Ghost gear’ can result from fishing gear getting entangled on reefs, rocks, and bottom obstructions, conflicts with vessels or other fishing gear, and bad weather. It may also be lost due to extended soak times (the time that equipment is submerged during fishing), fishing in deep habitats, or deploying excessive gear that cannot be hauled in regularly. If gear touches the seafloor or is not actively managed by fishermen, the likelihood of loss increases. Additionally, intentional discarding, including from illegal, unregulated and unreported (IUU) fishing, is also believed to contribute significantly to ghost gear in the sea, particularly in the areas beyond national jurisdiction. Vessels conducting IUU fishing often operate in adverse conditions, such as at night or without access to safe harbors during inclement weather, and frequently dispose of their gear to avoid detection, destroy evidence, and gain port access.

Overall, it is estimated that 5.7% of fishing nets, 8.6% of traps and pots, and 29% of fishing lines used globally are lost, abandoned, or otherwise discarded into the environment. All this ghost gear and other fisheries-related operations make up at least 10% of total ocean plastics. Rubbish associated with other marine operations adds at least an additional 10% to global marine litter. For plastics larger than 20 centimeters in size floating on the ocean’s surface, fishing gear accounts for as much as 70% (by weight).

Fishing gear: harmful marine plastic litter for animals, humans, and the environment

Ghost gear can subsist for hundreds of years, continuously harming animals, our shared habitats, coastal communities’ livelihoods, and our health. As global demand for seafood rises, large-scale fishing operations grow, in turn, amplifying ghost gear and its impacts.

The phenomenon of ghost fishing occurs when abandoned gear continues to fish, indiscriminately entangling and suffocating many species. According to WWF, fishing waste threatens 66% of marine animals, including all sea turtle species and 50% of seabirds, with entanglement or entrapment. Fishes, sharks, turtles, rays, manatees, sea birds, and other marine life are often trapped in fishing gear, suffering injuries or death due to exhaustion, predation, or starvation. World Animal Protection estimates that ghost gear kills over a hundred thousand seals, sea lions, and large whales every year. Further, when ingested, fishing equipment can cause gastrointestinal perforation, obstruction, sepsis, toxicity, and starvation in animals.

Among ghost gears, gillnets, traps and pots, and fish aggregating devices (FADs) pose the greatest risk to marine mammals, reptiles, and birds. Gill nets, the most prevalent type of ghost net, can extend down 10 to 50 feet deep, and stretch up to 2 miles in length. These nets hang vertically and capture fish by entanglement. They travel thousands of miles, continuing to ensnare marine animals even when they are dormant on the seafloor. For example, a study using data from the US estimated that about 4,500 recovered ghost nets had killed “upwards of 2,500,000 marine invertebrates, 800,000 fish, and 20,000 marine birds” over the time the nets were derelict in the water.

Ghost gear also physically damages marine habitats, alters the composition of marine sediments, and disrupts feeding and breeding grounds. As marine habitats are destroyed, the resilience of different species is reduced, weakening the ocean ecosystem and its ability to withstand climate change and other environmental disturbances.

The presence of ghost gear exacerbates the decline in fish and other commercial aquatic animal populations caused by the large-scale industrial fishing sector. Studies show that over 90% of species trapped in ghost gear have commercial value. In some regions, up to 30% of the decline in fish stocks can be attributed to ghost gear. Consequently, local fishing communities are faced with reduced harvest, increased fishing efforts, and lost fishing time. This, coupled with annual clean-up expenses, costs coastal communities and governments millions of dollars per year.

Policy Implications

Taking effective action to tackle ghost gear is long overdue – the detrimental impacts of ghost gear are already widespread. To prevent further harm to the environment, animals, livelihoods, and food safety and security, several measures combatting ghost gear should be implemented:

  1. Mandatory marking of fishing gear would help prevent loss of gear by responsible fisheries, and combat IUU fishing. This is in line with the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) recommendation to enforce gear marking and address IUU. At regional and international level, UNEP recommends harmonizing gear marking.
  2. Governments and other stakeholders should leverage existing partnerships for the exchange of best practices and capacity building to develop practical solutions for ghost gear, including its prevention and removal. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) is such a network via which the private sector, academia, governments, intergovernmental organizations, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) can participate. UNEP also recommends its Regional Seas programme for governments to share knowledge on managing ghost gear.
  3. Certifiers of sustainable seafood products should include gear management in their standards. This would incentivize fisheries to improve management of gear. Certifying body, Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) requires that the impacts of ghost gear are explicitly considered during each fisheries assessment. MSC also requires fisheries to minimize gear loss and mitigate the impact of any losses.
  4. The private sector can advance solutions at the manufacturing stage, such as biodegradable fishing gear to avoid indefinite ghost gear fishing and/or designs that facilitate the separation and recycling of plastics used by the fishing industry. 

Finally, the public can also play a role in tackling this challenge by reducing consumption of seafood, including farmed seafood, which uses vast amounts of wild-caught fish as fishmeal. A plant-rich diet helps scale down industrial fishing operations, thereby reducing ghost gear and its impact on the catch harvests available for sustainable small-scale fishing by coastal communities. Conscious choices of sustainable and environmentally friendly food consumption further have a positive impact on the conservation of marine ecosystems and the overall health of our oceans.

“Stakeholders of both the fishing and aquaculture industries need to include aquatic animal welfare practices when designing policies and strategies to reduce the harmful impacts of ghost gear in our oceans. The welfare of individual animals has been largely ignored by the industry, and that needs to change urgently if we want to see results in curbing fishing gear contamination,” says Catalina Lopez, Director of the Aquatic Animal Alliance. Aquatic Life Institute has specific and actionable recommendations for stakeholders which you can find in our Key Welfare Recommendations for Marine Capture Fisheries report.

This World Environment Day serves as a powerful reminder of the interconnectedness between animal welfare and environmental concerns, as illustrated by the pervasive issue of all forms of plastic pollution, including ghost gear. This underscores the urgency of tackling plastic waste and is a call to action for everyone, as we strive to protect and preserve our planet for the well-being of all living beings.