a A trip to the remote North Pacific vortex provides a stark reality check on the scale of the planet’s plastic waste crisis. “You’ve been cruising at 10 knots for five days, you’re lonely. You don’t see any other boats. Then you find toothbrushes and lighters floating around you,” says Laurent Lebreton, head of research at Ocean Cleanup, a Dutch nonprofit that develops technology to extract marine plastic. “It’s just so surreal.”
Even more astonishing, however, are the meters of nets, ropes, twine, luminous orange floats, crab pots, and fisheries: remnants of the global fishing industry, roaming what is known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.”
From samples collected by Ocean Cleanup’s floating purge arm system – which removes plastic from this vortex circuit – new Lebreton research has deciphered some plastic fragments, which She notes that most of this waste can be traced back to five industrialized fishing nations: the United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Taiwan.
The blame for marine plastic is usually pointed at land pollution from the fast-growing economies of Southeast Asia and elsewhere, says Lieberton. But his new discoveries highlight the contribution of industrialized nations to this problem as well.
Officially known as Abandoned, Lost, or Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG) – and informally as “ghost gear” – this marine litter consists of fishing nets, ropes, strings, traps and other fishing gear, mostly made of durable plastics. High-buoyancy plastic fishing gear is likely to be concentrated in places like the North Pacific Gyre, but it is also scattered across the ocean. This amount is known to be difficult to measure, but it is estimated that between 500,000 and 1 million tons fall into the seas annually.
An October survey of 450 fishermen from seven large fishing countries estimated that 2% of fishing gear used globally ends up in the ocean. The stake may seem small, but the global catch is huge, says Kelsey Richardson, lead author of the study.
It has an estimated area of 3,000 square kilometers of gillnets, 740,000 kilometers of long main lines, and 25 meters of pots and traps. At current loss rates, the researchers found that the amount of stray fishing nets measured by area would be enough to cover the planet’s surface in 65 years.
“Unfortunately, wherever hunting occurs, gear is lost,” says Ingrid Jeskes, director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a program led by the Ocean Conservancy that brings together fishermen, conservation organizations, industry actors and governments.
Ghost gear contributes about 20% of marine plastic – most of the rest comes from land-based sources – but underwater, its effects are much worse. “It continues to function as something that hunts marine wildlife,” says Christina Dixon, Ocean Campaign Leader at the Environmental Investigation Agency. “He’s an invisible killer.”
The World Wide Fund for Nature describes fishing litter as the deadliest form of marine plastic, finding that being trapped or entrapped with ghost gear affects 66% of marine animals, including all species of sea turtles and 50% of seabirds.
Captured animals die from suffocation, drowning, starvation, or from not being able to reproduce and migrate properly. “Everyone knows the video of the turtle with a straw in its nose, but kilometers of gillnets are even deadlier,” says Jeskes.
Various types of ghost gear can form gigantic clumps—like the 9,000kg ball of mixed rope, nets, and line that the Ocean Conservancy helped fishermen pull from the sea floor off the coast of Maine in 2019. It was “floating below the surface, out of sight,” As Jesskis says. These layers of waste can pose navigational hazards and crush ecosystems such as coral reefs and seagrass meadows, creating barriers and suffocating marine life.
All along, Dixon says, ghost gear costs millions of dollars to clean up, especially for small island nations that are in the way of drift gear invading their reefs and beaches.
There are many reasons fishing gear turns into marine waste – from inclement weather to poor storage and equipment getting stuck on the sea floor. Fishermen facing difficult economic conditions may be taking more risks with fishing, Richardson says, increasing the potential for damage to them or the loss of their gear. Particularly dangerous conditions around illegal fishing mean that this mysterious phenomenon may be contributing even more to the waste.
Whatever the scenario, “the majority of the loss isn’t because fishermen throw their gear into the sea. It’s unintentional. Replacing equipment is often very expensive.” Warren Unkert, a commercial bowl fishing in New Jersey, says he loses about 30 bowls of crab annually. And, at $40 (£35) a bowl plus lost catch, costs are up.
Where exactly the ghost gear comes from is still being researched. Lieberton’s study traced the national origins of fishing litter in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (which, logically, indicated which countries had the largest fishing presence in that ocean) — but it doesn’t tell us much about other areas, he says. “I’ll be curious to see what we find in the next [four] swirls; “
To fill these knowledge gaps, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is gathering data from government members and fishermen surveys to create what Giskes expects to be the largest global data set on Ghost Gear. In the next five or 10 years, they hope to get a comprehensive picture of the problem.
In the shorter term, there was an innovation aimed at manipulating ghost equipment. Designers have developed biodegradable fishing gear and satellite-tracked buoys that allow fishermen to track and recover lost traps. Gear recycling is now commonplace in many ports, and a handful of them include gear buyback schemes for old or damaged gear.
In the United States, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program funds dozens of prevention and recovery projects: one has partnered with New Jersey-based Stockton University with fishermen including Unckert to identify sunken crab pots using sonar off the state’s coast. “We’ve got at least 5,000 or 6,000 bottoms out, from one cove over the past 10 years,” Unckert says.
Canada has made it mandatory to report missing gear, as well as identifying certain gear, making it possible to trace lost gear to individual ships and countries, and is thought to increase accountability. Some momentum is building on the industry side, too: Thai Union, one of the world’s largest seafood companies, is asking suppliers of tuna to select non-biodegradable parts from fish-collecting devices, says Adam Brennan, the company’s sustainability group manager. .
So far, Dixon says, efforts to deal with ghost equipment have been fragmented and essentially voluntary, which does not match the sheer volume and transnational nature of the waste. “Fishing gear is already falling through the global governance gaps.”
That could change with the legally binding international treaty to end plastic pollution, to be drafted by 2024. Negotiations on its terms, which begin this month, provide an opportunity for measures to tackle ghost gear — such as gear labeling, purchasing — back-schemes and design of recyclable equipment. Recycling – mandatory in all countries. Most solutions, Dixon says, “will only be effective if everyone does them.”
Jeskes says there is a way out of the tangled mess of ghost gear if governments are willing to work together. “This seems like a solvable problem.”