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Ghost Fishing: Time for the Fishing Industry to Clean Up Its Deadly Mess

Image credit: Peter Verhoog/Dutch Shark Society

More and more consumers are aware of overfishing and the effects plastic trash is having on the world’s oceans. Various companies are taking small steps in harvesting ocean garbage and recycling it while organizations such as the Marine Stewardship Council are raising awareness about the importance of sustainably sourced seafood. One problem, however, is still wreaking havoc on fisheries across the world. Unwanted and abandoned fishing equipment such as nets and pots, often called “ghost gear,” often still traps and kills fish and sea mammals long after their final use. The result is “ghost fishing,” in which animals end up trapped, injured and often starve to death.

World Animal Protection, a British non-profit, estimates 640,000 tons of ghost gear a year becomes lodged into the sea floor or floats across the oceans. This crisis is endemic, from lobster trappers in New England to southeast Asia, where Thailand and Indonesia dominate the region’s fishing industry. On top of this, WWF estimates as much as 85 percent of the world’s fisheries are completely exploited or overfished; the United Nations first brought up this problem almost 30 years ago, but little progress has been made since. Therefore more education and action are desperately needed from the fishing industry.

Unfortunately this sector, a multibillion-dollar industry within the United States alone, is doing little to address this challenge, and in fact, is responsible for much of the damage due to their massive supply chains. Trident Seafood, the largest seafood supplier in the United States, is silent on the issue. The same holds true for Bumble Bee, Tri-Marine, Starkist, High Liner Foods, Beaver Street Fisheries, American Seafoods and Beaver Street Fisheries. Chicken of the Sea, part of the massive Thai Union International company, and the American division of Nippon Suisan also do not mention how and if they tackle this problem at all. All of the aforementioned companies rank within or close to the 10 largest seafood companies in the U.S. The problem is magnified worldwide as most of the world’s fishing companies are privately owned and publicly disclose little about their operations.

Nets
Click to enlarge.

Fortunately, a new coalition of NGOs, government agencies and smaller companies has started an alliance to confront the ghost gear problem. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) gathered together over 40 delegates in Ljubljana, Slovenia, last month to hammer out an agenda for how a multi-stakeholder organization can reverse the damage fishing companies are creating.

One issue is that the vast size of the world’s oceans is matched by the black hole of information available on how much debris is actually floating in the high seas. Many of the estimates on ghost gear and plastic trash come from relatively small sample sizes taken from studies completed across the world. Fishing companies could help this effort by releasing information about lost nets and other equipment missing from their ships.

First steps towards finding a solution to stemming the unnecessary killing of marine life could come from these same companies. Delegates in Ljubljana repeatedly mentioned the tagging and coding of nets, an assignment of colors or patterns to specific companies, and an investment in education and training as steps companies could take. Such relatively simple policies would not only decrease the rate at which unwanted fishing equipment is discarded into the oceans, but would also help ensure the long-term viability of this industry. Technology could also assist fishermen by providing them more knowledge — despite improvements in GPS’ application to oceanography, many of the world’s ocean floors are still poorly mapped.

Fingers are often pointed at fishermen for causing this problem, but the issue of ghost gear is far more complicated. As Tonny Wagey, an Indonesian government scientist who attended the GGGI meetings, explained in an interview, fishermen do not want to lose their nets because replacing them can often cost two to three months’ worth of their annual earnings.

“It is the big companies, many of which know illegal fishing is going on, that are behind this problem,” Wagey said, “and there is a lack of political will to deal with this.”

While large fishing companies so far are not yet engaged in finding solutions to the ghost gear problem, innovative companies in other industries are doing their part. Aquafil, a nylon manufacturer, has launched a program that collects old nets from aquaculture companies and abandoned nets from oceans, and recycles them into nylon yarns for carpets and textiles. And Bureo, a social enterprise in Chile, also collects discarded nets and recycles them into skateboards.

Aquafil
Piles of nets at the Aquafil warehouse (Credit: Leon Kaye). Click to enlarge.

But these two firms can only do so much to tackle the ongoing problem of ghost gear continuing to damage the oceans’ ecosystems. One visit to an Aquafil warehouse in Ajdovscina, Solvenia, close to the Italian border, gave an idea of how daunting the challenge is. In what was once a cotton mill, Aquafil employees now receive bale after bale of old fishing nets (left) that are cleaned before they are sent to another factory for reprocessing. Each bale weighs about four metric tons (8,800 pounds), and Aquafil representatives reminded me that what surrounded us was only the tiniest fraction of nets that are floating in our oceans, where they continue to trap and kill sea turtles, seals and fish long after they were dumped from fishing boats.

Ghost gear only adds to the environmental degradation that continues in our oceans, along with plastic debris and overfishing. The world’s fishing companies, along with the brands they own and retailers and restaurant companies to whom they sell, have a huge opportunity to lend their resources to an effort to reverse the destruction going on in our oceans and seas. Not only would these firms improve their overall reputation, but they would also bolster their long-term viability. But continuing to ignore the plight of the oceans will do nothing but sabotage their businesses in the long run.


Leon Kaye is founder and editor of GreenGoPost.com. A consultant and business writer, he frequently writes about sustainability efforts in the Balkans, renewable energy, and water issues.

[Read more about Leon Kaye]


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