By Sophie Lilienthal, Michiel Hoornick, and Maathangi Hariharan, students at Geneva Graduate Institute

Defining the Problems: Ghost Fishing and Marine Pollution

Fishing nets, either accidentally or deliberately discarded at sea, can have serious adverse effects on the marine environment. First, these nets continue to catch fish and other marine animals (commonly called “ghost fishing”). Second, fishing nets are among the biggest marine plastic polluters. They are known to entangle other waste and have the capacity to form “garbage islands”, which pose serious threats to marine life as well.

In 2016, a team of researchers from the Republic of Korea discovered a method to produce fishing nets from a biodegradable monofilament that will degrade after 24 months. Although a promising solution, researchers find that biodegradable nets are still less efficient than non-biodegradable nets and that more research is needed to improve their efficiency. Thus, for small and industrial fishers to take up biodegradable fishing nets, there must be advantages to their use that would, at least in part, counterbalance their lack of efficiency.

Some private actors are already investing in the development of biodegradable nets – these singular efforts, however, are not enough to bring about global change. Moreover, even biodegradable nets can cause considerable damage to marine life. Therefore, their implementation must be accompanied by strategies to mark nets, to prevent loss of nets, and to recover nets from the ocean.

Finding a Solution: Introducing a Biodegradable Fishing Gear Certificate

Within international law and global governance, Voluntary Sustainability Standards (VSS) have gained increased attention, and have increased presence across different sectors, including coffee, cotton, and the broader fishing sector. VSS have proven effective tools to protect ecosystems while at the same time providing the space to invest in sustainability. VSS are private standards that require products to meet specific economic, social, and environmental sustainability metrics. The requirements can refer to product quality or attributes, but also to production and processing methods, as well as transportation. They can also serve as alternatives where laws do not exist. As voluntary schemes that guide production towards delivering positive economic, environmental, and social outcomes, VSS could provide a valuable contribution to promoting sustainable fishing practices.

Apart from a step forward towards achieving SDG 14, a biodegradable fishing gear certificate would make a wider contribution to sustainable development. Such a VSS could provide an opportunity to cushion participating small fishers against the financial risk of changing from non-degradable to biodegradable fishing nets. A VSS for fishing nets would allow for better market access and recognition (through labels) that the fishery is using sustainable fishing practices, which would lead to better sales and thus better revenue. A requirement to have biodegradable nets could also be a part of already existing VSS in the fisheries sector.

The ultimate goal of this strategy is to fully replace non-biodegradable fishing gear with biodegradable fishing gear. Specifically, this change in fishing practices would benefit SDG target 14.1, aiming to prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, and to increase scientific knowledge. It would also contribute to SDG target 12.3, which envisages a reduction of food losses along production and supply chains and SDG target 12.5, which aims to substantially reduce waste generation through prevention and reduction, by 2030. As fisheries are a major food industry, ghost fishing could be considered food loss in the production chain. The disposal and loss of fishing gear in the sea is waste produced by the fishing industry contributing to marine pollution, which the use of biodegradable nets could help prevent.

In addition, a VSS certificate could provide an opportunity for stakeholders and states to promote and support research in the field of improving the effectiveness of biodegradable nets and to develop strategies to mark and recover lost nets at sea. Following the example of the Forest Stewardship Council Network, such a certificate could also help create a networking platform for the exchange of know-how and for the communication of relevant information to relevant local and regional authorities. These efforts would benefit SDG target 9.5, which endeavors to enhance scientific research and upgrade technological capabilities of industrial sectors in all countries by 2030, and SDG target 14.a of SDG 14, which aims to develop research capacity in order to improve ocean health and to enhance the contribution of marine biodiversity to the development of developing countries.

In summary, ghost fishing remains one of major challenges in the prevention of marine pollution, and requires novel and innovative solutions that go beyond traditional environmental legislation. As other VSS have shown, private certification could be one such solution. A biodegradable fishing gear certificate would thus benefit not only SDG 14, but SDGs 9 and 12 as well.

This article is a result of the Spring 2022 class, ‘Law of Sustainable Development,’ Geneva Graduate Institute, taught by Dr. Charlotte Sieber-Gasser and Dr. Manuel Sanchez.