Lost & Found: Ghost gear tech and other solutions

Article by Amy Kenworthy, CEO and Research Officer at GhostNetWork.

Best case scenario, following our previous blog on preventative methods for abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), no more enters the sea (we can dream right?). But what about the ghost gear that’s already in the sea? Who’s going to clean that up?

There are some fantastic initiatives centred around the eradication of existing ghost gear, such as Sea Shepherd’s ghost net retrieval operations and Ghost Diving’s technical divers, who are specialised in the removal of lost fishing gear and other marine debris.

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Experienced divers can be a great use of manpower for retrieving nets in hard to reach places. First, they use knives to remove the nets from the obstacle, as they are often completely tangled after days, months or even years at sea. The divers then attach lift bags, which are filled with air and lift the nets to the surface where they can be hauled onto the boat often using a crane due to their weight. In other cases, when divers aren’t used to retrieve the nets, boats will use a device called a creeper or grapnel is used to hook the nets and bring them to the surface.

Although these methods can be useful, often, these recovery operations are not always the best use of financial resources, which are often a limiting factor in conservation and research. Ghost gear is widespread and its exact location often remains unknown, so preventing the loss of fishing gear in the first place is essential and should be the main focus. But because of the detrimental impact of ghost gear on the marine ecosystem, it is also necessary to remove what is lost. Plus, fishing gear is expensive, so it is in the interest of fishers to retrieve their gear, sooner rather than later!

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So what could be done to improve lost gear recovery?

Firstly, it should be a requirement for all vessels to have specialised equipment onboard to retrieve fishing gear. This would enable boats to immediately retrieve their gear or any ghost gear they come across, as long as it is not too dangerous. However, in some cases, fishers may not know where their gear is anymore. For example, fishing gear sometimes gets damaged or swept away in stormy seas. Fishing gear can also get dragged from where it was originally placed because of ‘gear conflict’, which is when a fishing vessel or its gear comes into contact with the gear of another vessel. This is more likely to occur with static gear, such as pots and traps or gill nets, which are left in a location for a period of time and then retrieved once the targeted species has been caught.

In the last few years, there have been some exciting new technologies developed to help fishers locate their static gear in case it moves from where it was originally placed. These technologies could prevent the loss of thousands of tonnes of gear every year, although currently, many of these are still in the development stage and not yet widely used in fisheries.

Here are some interesting technologies that can provide fishers with a significantly lower chance of losing their gear:

  • Resqunit

If a trap is in the water for an extended period and is lost at sea, the unit releases a flotation buoy. The buoy floats to the surface and the gear can be hauled from the ocean. The fishers save money and an environmental hazard is removed from the ocean.

  • NetTag

By attaching an acoustic tag to fishing gear, the exact location of the gear can be found. The technology also includes an automated-short-range robotic recovery system, so most gear that gets lost can easily be retrieved.

  • PingMe

PingMe tags are attached to fishing gear and by using transponder technology, either integrated with the boat’s sonar, or as a stand-alone system, the gear can easily be tracked and found.

  • Blue Ocean Gear

Blue Ocean Gear’s Smart Buoy technology tracks fishing gear at all times, including traps and nets that are far offshore. These buoys alert fishers of their new location when gear has moved too far, allowing for direct retrieval rather than aimless searching.

  • SAFEGEAR:

SAFEGEAR was developed by the Blue Marine Foundation and is an innovative solution in the form of a cost-effective AIS beacon, developed specifically for fishermen to use at sea to stop gear conflict. AIS (automatic identification system) transmits a ship’s position so that other ships are aware of its position. SAFEGEAR sees the potential of using this technology to make boats aware of fishing gear locations and allows fishers to track their gear on the AIS so that they know if it has moved.

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Now remember, safety first! Sometimes, even with the best will in the world, it’s too dangerous to remove ghost gear. If a boat is still not able to retrieve its gear, due to safety reasons, lost gear should be reported. To make it easier for fishers to report lost fishing gear, electronic logbooks could be used. By doing this, the gear can be located and recovered before it gets lost in the depth of the ocean. Because fishing gear can travel long distances, monitoring and reporting methods should be standardised and authorities should cooperate to track and retrieve gear efficiently.

Just because you’re not a fisher, doesn’t mean you can’t help! Currently, anyone can report ghost gear by using the Ghost Gear Reporter app, which you can download here . It allows you to report details and location of lost gear of any kind that you come across.

Reporting lost gear would also improve the data and knowledge we have on how much ALDFG there is in the ocean and where it’s located. By having more information on hotspots and snagging sites, fishers would know what areas to avoid and recovery operations would be able to target their retrieval operations.

We know that we will never be able to completely prevent fishing gear from getting lost at sea as the ocean is a powerful force that we can’t control. But by following best practices to reduce the likelihood of gear getting lost in the first place, and by having systems in place to quickly and safely retrieve lost gear, we could largely reduce the amount of ghost gear that haunts the sea. But that does leave one more question… if we get all this ghost gear out the sea, what happens next? How can we sustainably deal with it so the old fishing nets don’t just become a problem elsewhere? Follow GhostNetWork and keep an eye out for our next blog article to find out!

Images:

  1. Ghost Diving net recovery (previously Ghost Fishing)
  2. Sea Shepherd net recovery
  3. SAFEGEAR beacon being trialed in Cornwall

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