Jeff Kart, Contributor
Sometimes when you hold a contest, you get more than you bargained for. Like one held recently by the Ocean Conservancy, seeking images showing the beauty and wonder of the ocean. Plenty of photos were received in that vein, but plenty of other submissions called attention to ghost gear.
This ever-present threat to marine life is also known as lost and abandoned fishing gear. Coincidentally, the pictures of entangled marine life are in line with a Global Ghost Gear Initiative that the conservancy assumed leadership of earlier this year. So the nearly 100 member organizations of that initiative are doing more than just shaking their heads and lamenting about the distressing photos received of a parrot fish, spider crab, seal and other creatures.
Hundreds of photos were submitted for the contest, and the winners (all of them sans ghost gear) were announced earlier this month.
“Given the surge in awareness around the ocean plastic issue in the past couple of years, we expected to see many submissions of animals interacting with the top 10 most commonly found items at the International Coastal Cleanup each year—items like plastic bags, bottle caps, and beverage bottles,” says Ingrid Giskes, director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative.
“We were really surprised by the number of submissions that featured ghost gear. The photos themselves were quite graphic, and really brought the severity of the issue to light.”
The conservancy says ghost gear is “the deadliest form of marine debris because it is specifically designed to entangle marine life.”
Most of it ends up in the ocean unintentionally after it’s lost, abandoned or discarded, Giskes says. “This could be because of bad weather conditions, gear snagging as two fishing boats cross each other, or gear simply getting worn out and breaking off.”
But ghost gear also can be linked to illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing. “People fishing in areas illegally are more likely to discard their equipment illegally as they won’t have access to port reception facilities. Illegal fishers sometimes fish at night or use excessive gear to maximize catch in a short time span, making it easier to lose.”
Best estimates say that upwards of 800,000 tons of ghost gear is lost annually; emerging science suggests these inputs may be much higher, the conservancy says.
A 2015 threat rank report from the conservancy, published in the journal Marine Policy, is one of many studies to list ghost gear as one of the biggest threats to marine life (including in freshwater like the North American Great Lakes).
The initiative’s three key aims, or three Rs, are: reducing (of gear loss), reusing (fishing gear where possible) and recycling (showing the value of fishing gear).
“The goal of the (Global Ghost Gear Initiative) is to prevent gear loss in the first place, and we do this by promoting best practices for the management of fishing gear,” Giskes says.
That includes marking fishing gear so it’s easier to trace back to its source, developing best practices for storing gear on boats and taking precautions for bad weather conditions.
“We also promote spatial planning to prevent gear conflict and interaction with different ocean conditions and surfaces, along with retrieval efforts in sensitive areas,” she says.
The initiative has completed, or is in the process of completing, more than 17 projects in different countries around the world, each of which implement holistic, sustainable and scalable solutions, according to Giskes.
The effort also engages in policy debates on national and international levels, providing governments with advice on how to incorporate ghost gear in national marine litter and sustainable fisheries management plans.
For example, the conservancy helped organized a removal last month in the Gulf of Maine, with initiative member Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation. Local lobstermen and expert salvage divers removed more than 20,000 pounds of abandoned fishing gear. And the recovered gear was recycled as part of a waste-to-energy program.
Upcoming ghost hunting exploits include a series of four regional workshops for the South Pacific (Vanuatu), Southeast Asia (Bali), West Africa (Senegal) and Latin America and the Caribbean (Panama) to raise awareness on best management practices of fishing gear. They’ll be discussing voluntary guidelines for the marking of fishing gear as part of a global strategy to combat ghost gear under development by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
Giskes says the initiative has been able to gather together a diverse group, including those in the fishing business, because ghost gear is a cross-cutting issue.
“It affects the environment, but it also affects local economies, businesses, livelihoods and food security. The strength of the (initiative) comes from the diversity of its membership, and its membership is diverse because ghost gear is a threat to everyone.”