Abandoned fishing gear wreaks havoc at sea

A fishing trawler with nets

Lost or abandoned nets are taking a heavy toll on fish and marine mammals, according to a new FAO/UNEP report

Fish and other sea mammals are paying a heavy price for the tonnes of lost or abandoned fishing gear in our oceans

The decimation of global fish populations is only the most deleterious effect of industrial fishing techniques – a new report reveals that lost fishing gear is also wreaking havoc in the marine environment.

Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear now accounts for 10 per cent (640,000 tonnes) of all marine litter, according to the report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP).

As well as ‘ghost fishing’ – continuing to trap fish and other marine mammals – lost gear can alter the seabed environment, cause navigational issues and damage boats.

Seabed-anchored gill nets, sometimes 600m to 10,000m in length, can continue indiscriminately to ‘ghost fish’ for years after being lost or abandoned. In Chesapeake Bay, US, 150,000 crab pots are lost annually, while in hurricane season 50 per cent of those set off the Caribbean island of Guadaloupe can be lost – 20,000 pots.

The report indicates that merchant shipping and land-based sources are the main offenders on the open seas and in coastal areas respectively.
The report recommends financial incentives to report or recover lost or damaged gear; identifying marks to improve understanding of why gear is being lost; new technologies to facilitate the recovery of expensive equipment, and better weather monitoring to avoid nets being deployed in very bad weather; improved collection, disposal and recycling systems; the logging of gear losses to increase opportunities for its recovery.

Work is also underway on biodegradable plastics, fishing gear with biodegradable elements and acoustic ‘pingers’ on nets to warn off whales.

If the international community does not take steps to prevent, mitigate and take measures to redress the situation, said Ichiro Nomura, FAO assistant director-general for fisheries and aquaculture, marine debris would continue to accumulate and its impacts worsen.

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