“Polluter Pays Principle”: Stopping fishing gear loss to our oceans requires greater accountability from fishers


 |  Biodiversity/Conservation

Lost, abandoned, or discarded fishing gear is a major environmental issue and the onus needs to be on the fishing industry to reduce their inputs into the ocean.

What is derelict fishing gear (DFG)?

Some parts of the ocean are practically littered with heaps upon heaps of abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear. Also referred to as “derelict fishing gear”, these are equipment accidentally or intentionally discarded into the environment after use by fishers or industry. 

Derelict fishing gear on the ocean bottom (https://georgiastrait.org/work/education-and-outreach/voices-of-salish-sea-youth/abandoned-lost-or-other-discarded-fishing-gear-aldfg/

There are two types of fishing gear: active and passive. Active gear is constantly being monitored by the person deploying it. Examples include grappling devices (harpoons, spears, and arrows), handlines, poles, and hooks. Handlines and poles involve one hook to one fishing line and are shorter than longlines; hooks are often baited.

On the other hand, passive gear is set in a specific location and left unattended. Examples include nets (e.g. gillnets), longlines, pots, and traps. Pots and traps are enclosed spaces and can be left in the environment until organisms enter them. Likewise, gillnets are set in a particular location and left unattended for a period of time called a “soak time”. Longlines consist of a long line or main line that is equipped with a series of baited hooks. As the usage of longlines does not require active monitoring, passive sampling devices are more likely to become derelict fishing gear. Passive gear is also more likely to have bycatch, or trap non-target organisms. 

Gillnet: example of passive fishing gear (Last chance for the vaquita – Geographical Magazine)

Every year, it is estimated that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear ends up in the ocean – this is the equivalent weight of over 100,000 elephants! Fishing gear can come in a variety of shapes and sizes; they can be as thin as a line, or as large as a net. Globally, it is estimated that 5.7% of fishing nets, 8.6% of traps, and 29% of lines are lost in the ocean every year. And people are finding fishing gear all over the ocean. For instance, a National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) marine debris removal program collected over four million pounds of fishing gear across the USA alone. 

The problem with derelict fishing gear

There are a number of issues with derelict fishing gear. Unfortunately, when fishing gear is lost, it does not stop serving its purpose: pots, traps, and nets among other gear can continue to catch organisms, a phenomenon called ghost fishing. Once trapped, it may be difficult for organisms to escape. What compounds the problem is that when the first batch of organisms die and decompose in the fishing gear, it can attract and trap more organisms, leading to a chain of tragedy. 

Ghost fishing. Source: What is ghost fishing? (noaa.gov)

Not only is derelict fishing gear hurting the global fish population, but it is also expensive. It costs money for fishers to replace their lost gear, and it also costs money to retrieve the gear. For instance, a clean-up program in the Republic of Korea spent $1300 on average to clean up each ton of fishing gear over a six-year period. Another effort in the Hawaiian Islands spent $25000 per ton on cleaning up lost fishing gear

Finally, derelict fishing gear is a marine pollution problem. In fact, it is estimated that around 10% of all marine debris by volume is fishing gear. Not only does it take away from the natural seascape environment, but it can be potentially harmful for deep sea ecosystems – studies have shown that gear such as trawls and lobster pots can be dragged along reef habitats by currents, destroying reefs and their associated organisms in the process. 

All of the above makes current fishing measures extremely unsustainable.

Dumping of fishing gear is illegal, so why is this happening?

One might think the reason why we have so much derelict fishing gear in the environment is due to a lack of policy. However, this is not the case: over the years, numerous pieces of legislation have attempted to mitigate the input of derelict fishing gear into the environment. In 1973, the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) prohibited the dumping of fishing gear into ocean waters. Furthermore, numerous countries and governmental bodies have followed up with bans or policies to further condemn the discarding of fishing gear into the environment. In 1991, the European Union (EU) banned the use of driftnets, a type of passive fishing device, if the nets were over 2.5 km in length. The following year, the UN followed up with a ban on driftnets over 2.5 km long in all international waters. In 2006, the EU Council permanently banned all deep-water gillnet fisheries at depths beyond 600 m.

Locally, policies have also been implemented to tackle the growing issue of derelict fishing gear. In Oregon, gillnetting for steelhead is prohibited and gillnets can only be used in the Columbia River. The South Atlantic Fishery Council banned fish traps in 1988, and existing traps in the Gulf of Mexico were to be phased out over a 10 year-period. As of 2012, it is mandatory for commercial fishermen to report lost nets within 24 hours of loss to the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife.

However, despite all of these policies, much fishing gear continues to end up in the ocean.

The elephant in the room

The fact that loss rates are still high must mean that these policies are not being followed. In other words, fishers and industry are still accidentally or intentionally discarding fishing gear after use. With the fishing industry becoming more volatile as pressure mounts on the world’s fish populations to provide us with food and with the ocean becoming more and more of a waste dump for our trash, business as usual – or, the current state of affairs – is no longer acceptable. 

And while there is a lot of focus on cleanup/removal programs, I believe that in order for things to change, we must address the elephant in the room: we must put greater responsibility on the fishing industry to reduce their loss rates of derelict fishing gear. And there must be greater enforcement efforts of bans, both locally and globally. 

Potential solutions

It is crucial to involve the fishing industry when thinking about solutions. This is very important for a number of reasons: firstly, mitigation of inputs at the source should be the priority – it is infinitely harder to clean up pollution once it has entered the environment. Secondly, the onus should be on the polluters to pay for the damage they are doing to the environment, not anyone else. A similar “polluter pays” principle underlies the logic of a carbon tax for carbon emissions. After all, why should communities that see fishing gear wash up on their shores be the ones that have to pay for their removal? But most importantly, the fishing industry is the expert on everything from the design of the gear to the way fishing gear is managed at the end of its life, and so any change or innovation to the system must involve them in some capacity.

As we discuss solutions, we also need to better understand the reasons why fishers abandon their gear in the first place. Reasons may range from cost of and access to shoreside collection facilities, to adverse weather exacerbating gear retrieval, to participation in illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing activity and more. Reasons why fishers abandon gear in high-income countries may differ from reasons of fishers in low-income countries, and solutions will need to reflect this discrepancy. To this day, instances of fishing gear loss are poorly documented and understood, so more research is needed to understand motivation behind gear abandonment in order to inform answers.

Adverse weather conditions may cause fishers to discard their fishing gear. Understanding the reasons behind fishing gear abandonment is necessary to address this growing issue. Image source: A_AdobeStock_Storm.jpeg (3657×2457) (deeperblue.com)

Nonetheless, there are some solutions that can be adopted right away to help combat this issue. Examples of collaborative change that involves the fishing industry may include shifting from passive fishing devices to active fishing gear. For instance, harpoons are active fishing gear that have a near-zero bycatch rate. Another solution is to use registration tags or licenses to track loss rates for fishing gear and help enforce stricter policy in higher polluting areas. Furthermore, authorities can keep tabs on the amount of gear fishers bring out to sea and compare them to how much is coming back for greater accountability of fishing equipment. There needs to be greater collaboration between the fishing industry and companies that recycle or upcycle used fishing gear, so that fishing gear is properly managed at the end of its life. 

Fishing gear can be recycled into products such as carpet tiles. Source: In the fishing industry, gear recycling is finally catching on | Ensia

Next steps and a note of hope

There are many ways to tackle this issue, from cleaning up the gear that is already in the ocean, to better designing gear to reduce ghost fishing rates, to stricter enforcement of pre-existing policy on derelict fishing gear. But I believe there needs to be more emphasis on upstream solutions – on stopping loss of derelict fishing gear into the ocean in the first place – to bring about systemic change. Let us shift our thinking and address fishing gear loss today!

Resources for youth – learn more about the issue and its solutions below:

Derelict Fishing Gear | OR&R’s Marine Debris Program (noaa.gov)

Global Ghost Gear Initiative | World Animal Protection

To stop the deaths of countless marine animals, we need to tag fishing gear | World Animal Protection

Video describing Canada’s plans to tackle fishing gear problem through clean-up as well as stopping it at its source

New federal program aims to clean up oceans, reel in ‘ghost gear’ – Halifax | Globalnews.ca

In the fishing industry, gear recycling is finally catching on | Ensia