Are Governments Doing Enough to Prevent Fishing Gear Pollution? Let’s have a de-bait!

Author: Sara Apresentação, Student at NOVA – Masters Degree in Law and Economics of the Sea

The most dangerous kind of marine plastic debris is lost fishing gear, which affects 50 percent of seabirds, 66% of marine mammals and all species of sea turtles. Besides the ecological damages, human health is also on the line, considering that several studies have reported microplastics in some level of the food chain. The actual effect on human health is still unknown and currently being researched. But I think we can all agree plastic is never a good entrée! 

To really tackle this huge problem, we must be engaged, through social awareness and voluntary actions against ghost gear. Even though GhostNetWork and other initiatives are working hard to implement solutions to stop fishing gear from polluting our ocean, political action is required alongside these efforts. 

The current legal framework still lacks enforcement and is not enough to deal with abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear, known as ALDFG, although the European Union is making progress in developing a better approach on marine litter with the new European Green Deal – with the ‘Single Use Plastic’ Directive. However, although the plastic straw ban is a great first step, it may be clouding the real issue of single-used items. This Directive also does not address fishing nets – the deadliest form of marine debris. However, there are some exciting projects underway, where nets are being redesigned to be made from new materials, which will reduce the harm to the marine life.   

The international legal framework that promotes a cleaner ocean and the prevention of marine litter is supported by four main “Conventions”. 

  1. The United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). Under this Convention, States have the overall “the obligation to protect and preserve the marine environment” (article 192); and more specifically, in accordance with article 194: “States shall take (…) all measures (…) necessary to prevent, reduce and control pollution of the marine environment from any source” 
  2. The International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL). MARPOL Annex V120 obliges governments to prevents garbage pollution from ships, e.g., prohibited dumping of gear into the ocean. 
  3.  United Nations Fishing Stock Agreement (UNFSA) was formed to conserve and manage highly migratory fish stocks. Article 5(f) includes regulations for States to minimize catch by lost or abandoned gear. Article 18(3)(d) includes fishing gear marking systems for identification and detection when lost. 
  4. And lastly in more broad terms, the United Nations drafted 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) to promote sustainability and guide Member States on that path. SDG 14 – Life Below Water – is the only ocean-related goal, however the achievement of this goal might improve and accelerate the achievement of the other goals (Domino Effect). 
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Governments have a responsibility to address the problem, given that ALDFG represents about 27% of all beach litter alone. Europe has committed to international cooperation to address the environmental and socioeconomic challenges around marine debris. The European Commission promised to take a second look at additional measures to address plastic marine litter as part of the Plastics Strategy, building on the patchwork efforts now undertaken in EU Member States. By its very nature, the problem of marine debris is international. 

According to the EU Fisheries Control Regulation (Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009), fishers already bear a general obligation to make retrieval attempts for lost fishing gear and to report any losses. However, this is not enforced and as stated in GhostNetWork’s previous article, sometimes nets simply get lost or break during fishing operations. Leaving gear behind is not always intentional, plus, many fishing vessels don’t have the equipment on board to safely recover lost gear. Furthermore, 56% of respondent of a stakeholder consultation on ‘Reducing marine litter: action on single use plastics and gear’ stated that hardly any lost gear is reported, making it almost impossible to have a clear idea of how much ALDFG is in the ocean and where to find it. 

The European Commission adopted the “European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy” on January 16, 2018, acknowledging that marine litter is still a problem, and that plastic is a significant cause of pollution. The Single-Use Plastic (SUP) and revised Port Reception Facilities (PRF) Directives, both of which were adopted in 2019, set out a range of measures to harmonise and promote a variety of approaches that address the complete life cycle of plastics in fishing gear, to prevent loss and promote reuse and recycling of nets into new products. 

The short lifecycle of fishing gear, with most of it lasting less than a year, is an important factor to consider. Fishing nets have a particularly high turnover rate, with around 33% of nets lost at sea every year and the remaining 67% reaching end-of-life within a year of use. The legislation’s top objective is to prevent fishing gear from becoming debris in the ocean. 

Besides these legislative efforts, the enforcement is still weak and often simply words on a piece of paper. Since government’s actions are known for taking too long to be ecologically relevant, the social and technological side of the issue, is where one may find solutions! 

Stakeholders must work together to prevent ALDFG. Prevention measures include marking fishing gear and restricting the use of gear in certain seasons or areas. Although some fishing gear will get lost, an adaptation of mitigation measures, including biodegradable fishing gear, reduce ghost fishing. 

What should be done?   

  • Adopt Best Practice Framework (BPF) for Fishing Gear management and the Management of Fishing Gear (FAO), serve as comprehensive and progressive guides to assess and manage fishery-specific ghost gear problems.  
  • Joining the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI): It is a vital global organization that provides critical technical support to the national fisheries to address ghost gear problems.  
  • Establish a new treaty/organization to address marine plastic pollution since this problem cannot be solved on a national or regional level.  
  • Design and manufacture of gear with biodegradable materials that are not harmful if lost; and design traceable gear (check out the NetTag project).  
  • Retrieval of lost fishing gear; Crew members aboard fishing vessels should be well-trained and retrieval equipment should be on board for safe retrieval.   
  • Share expertise to prevent fishing gear loss; Authorities can provide training to new fishers to avoid fishing gear loss and create awareness about ghost gear’s environmental impacts.  
  • Engage with government representatives to acquire more information about the ghost gear and learn the methodologies to mitigate it.  
  • Join GhostNetWork‘s growing network of organisations, experts and activists working to develop and implement solutions to ALDFG! We are now also part of the Clean Seas Campaign! Through the Clean Seas platform, the UNEP (UN Environment Program) is connecting and rallying individuals, civil society groups, industry and governments for catalysing change and transforming habits, practices, standards and policies around the globe to dramatically reduce marine litter and its negative impacts.

So, what’s your opinion, are governments doing enough or what would you like to see happen? Let’s start a debate!

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