Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Ghosts fishing, marine debris, and the international community

In the Islands we've known for years the dangers of ghost fishing.

That's the term for abandoned or lost fishing gear that keeps killing marine life for days, months, years.

(Image: There is marine debris in the form of old fishing gear in this photo amid the rocks and the bottles. Can you find it? Try a net at the lower left corner, the top of a hagfish trap behind the largest bottle, and a Japanese oyster fishery plastic spacer tube at upper left.)

International organizations have now jumped on the bandwagon, declaring ghost fishing a major environmental problem.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations discusses a new study on the topic at

The study, performed by the FAO and the UN Environmental Programme, discusses the topic using a new bunch of letters, ALDFG, which stands for abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.
The issue with ALDFG is primarily threefold, the report says:

“Continued catches of fish -- known as "ghost fishing" -- and other animals such as turtles, seabirds, and marine mammals, who are trapped and die;
“Alterations of the sea-floor environment; and
“The creation of navigation hazards that can cause accidents at sea and damage boats.”

You can find the actual report, all 139 pages of it, here:

In the Hawaiian Islands, most of the attention to marine debris is given after it comes to shore—either snagging on reefs or washing up on beaches. In both cases, it can be a severe hazard to fish, turtles, seals and seabirds. It can also severely damage the reefs, as waves drive great tangles of rope, net, fishing floats, entrapped boulders and more across the coral.

And the response in the Islands has primarily been to just pick it up. That takes the form of regular beach cleanups, involving volunteers on all islands, and paid crews that scour the reefs and shores of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands to collect tons upon tons of nets and ropes.

The new United Nations report calls for more attention to the source. Most of this stuff is made of plastic, and most of it comes from ships. And it is, of course, against the law to dump plastic at sea—specifically, it violates the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from
Ships (MARPOL).

So how to fishing boats get away with leaving their gear adrift on the ocean? Certainly, in many cases, they have no way of recovering lost gear. And this is recognized in the law. Says the UN report about MARPOL: “The prohibition of the discharge of plastics specifically prohibits the discharge of synthetic fishing nets; however, the Annex does not apply to the accidental loss of such nets, provided that all reasonable precautions have been taken to prevent such loss.”

The study reviews a range of potential responses, including paying fishing fleets for their used and damages nets (so they have a reason to bring them back to shore), using biodegradable gear, and placing radio or acoustic beacons on fishing gear, so it can be found if it's lost.

One of Hawai'i's fishing gear programs got a mention in the report:

“The Honolulu Derelict Net Recycling Program installed a container for reception of ALD nets and material from various origins recovered by the local longline fleet. In the first year, 11 tonnes of material were recovered and transported to the nearby waste-to-energy incinerator. One tonne of such material produces enough electricity to power a home for five months (Yates, 2007). This programme was operated as a public-private partnership, which reduced cost to the public purse and encouraged greater industry participation.”

In remote areas, it can be costly to haul plastic debris in for recycling or disposal, but disposing of it on site isn't always useful, the report said: “In isolated areas, burning may appear to be a convenient alternative, but this can create further problems. The burning of debris collected north of the Hawaiian Islands region was found to produce a toxic gaseous by-product (Marine Debris Workshop, Hawaii, 2000).”

The report recommends, among other things, a program aimed at prevention, mitigation and curative responses. That translates to 1) doing things to minimize the likelihood of fishing gear being lost or dumped at sea; 2) doing things to make it less of a problem, such as biodegradability; and 3) making gear easier to track down and recover, including reporting losses, adding locater information.

There is no single solution, the report says: “Measures to reduce ALDFG may be appropriately taken at the international, regional, national or local level. It is also likely that some measures will need to be legislated and made mandatory, while others need only be voluntary, and indeed may be more effective for being so.”

© Jan TenBruggencate 2009

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