New Report from WWF Says Addressing Abandoned Fishing Gear Must be Central in the Fight Against Plastic Pollution

  • So-called “ghost gear”, fishing equipment which is lost in the sea, can continue killing marine life for decades or even centuries after it first enters the ocean, making it the most deadly form of marine plastic debris
  • WWF is calling on governments to develop a legally binding global plastic pollution treaty that addresses this fundamental threat to marine wildlife

Abandoned fishing gear is the deadliest form of plastic debris for marine life and has already driven the vaquita porpoise and other marine mammals to the brink of extinction, yet even as this crisis continues to intensify, little attention is being paid to it by governments or industry, according to a new report from WWF.

The report, Stop Ghost Gear: The most deadly form of marine plastic debris, shines a lights on how ghost gear* is responsible for harming 66 per cent of marine mammal species, half of seabird species and all species of sea turtles, often subjecting them to a slow, painful and inhumane death. It also damages vital marine habitats such as coral reefs and mangroves and threatens the food sources and livelihoods of coastal communities and fishers, according to the report, which highlights how tackling ghost gear should be at the fore of efforts to combat the global plastic pollution problem.

“Entanglement in ghost gear can cause prolonged suffering, result in long-term physiological effects and stress in individual animals, and even death,” said Leigh Henry, director wildlife policy, wildlife conservation, World Wildlife Fund. “WWF is seeking to shine a light on this devastating global threat to marine life. We have the power to stop it, but problems like these require integrated solutions and commitments from governments, fishing gear designers, producers, fishers, and the general public to prevent these plastics from strangling our oceans”.

The report shows that:

  • At least 10 per cent of marine litter is estimated to be made up of fishing waste, which means that between 500,000 and 1 million tons of fishing gear are entering the ocean every year.
  • The number of species affected by either entanglement or ingestion of plastic debris has doubled since 1997, from 267 to 557 species. 66% of marine mammals, 50% of seabirds, and all 7 species of marine turtles.
  • 5.7 per cent of all fishing nets, 8.6 per cent of traps and pots, and 29 per cent of all fishing lines used globally are lost around the world each year.
  • In the upper Gulf of California, Mexico, illegal and abandoned gillnets have driven the vaquita porpoise to the brink of extinction – only around 10 individuals remain.
  • Ghost gear damages valuable marine habitats, damaging coral, harming the habitats of sessile animals, damaging vegetation, causing sediment build-up, and impeding access to key ecosystems.
  • Ghost gear has negative economic impacts, posing dangers to livelihoods and navigation by boat.
    • Studies estimate that over 90 per cent of species caught in ghost gear are of commercial value.
    • Ghost gear can act as a navigation hazard, affecting a vessel’s propulsion and the ability to maneuver, causing operational delays, economic loss and, in extreme cases, injuries or even the loss of lives of crew members or ferry passengers.

As well as calling on governments to support the establishment of a new treaty to stop plastic pollution, WWF is encouraging countries around the globe to join the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) - a global alliance of fishing industry, private sector, corporates, NGOs, academia and governments focused on solving the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear worldwide. On July 16, 2020 the Department of State announced the United States formally became a member of the GGGI.

“Improving the sustainability and responsibility of the fishing industry will be essential to solving this unseen threat. If we’re going to protect the health of our oceans, fishers must be part of the global effort to combat ghost gear,” said Karen Douthwaite, lead specialist, oceans, World Wildlife Fund. “But this is a global problem that requires coordinated action to solve, and we must have a global binding framework in place. That’s why WWF is calling on governments around the world to create and sign on to a new Treaty to Combat Marine Plastic Pollution.”

Members of the public are invited to join almost 2 million others in signing the petition calling governments to take urgent action.

Notes to Editors:

*Ghost gear is a common name for abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear such as gillnets, traps and pots, or fish aggregation devices. Gear is abandoned when the fisher cannot retrieve it, which happens when gear is snagged on reefs, rocks or other obstructions. Gear is considered lost if a fisher cannot locate it or has lost operational control over it. This can happen when marker buoys become detached, or tides or wave action or snagging carry fishing gear away from its deployment location. Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing also contributes considerable amounts of ghost gear, as illegal fishers abandon or discard fishing gear to conceal their activities. Sometimes fishing gear is also discarded into the ocean deliberately. This behavior can be motivated by lack of adequate onshore disposal facilities, high disposal costs, or lack of storage space onboard.

The scale of the ghost gear problem:

  • 11,436 tons of traps and 38,535 tons of gillnets are abandoned every year in South Korean waters.
  • An estimated 160,000 blue crab traps were lost every year in the Chesapeake Bay in the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the eastern US between 2004 and 2008.
  • More than 70km of gillnets were lost in Canada’s Greenland Halibut fishery in just five years.
  • An estimated 5,500-10,000 gillnet pieces were lost in the Baltic Sea each year between 2005 and 2008.

Economic costs of ghost gear:

  • An estimated 178,874 harvestable crabs valued at US$ 744,296 were lost in lost crab traps in one season in the Puget Sound, along the northwestern coast of the US state of Washington.
  • A blue crab harvest increase of 13,504 tons, valued at US$ 21.3 million, was documented after removing 34,408 derelict crab traps over six years.
  • The economic harm caused to fishers also includes the loss of the gear itself. In one crab fishery in British Columbia, annual replacement of lost gear costs the fishery over US$ 490,000.

Gaps and challenges in existing international frameworks:

  • A lack of harmonized binding standards at the global level for the mitigation of pollution by plastic waste, including ghost gear;
  • A lack of global standards for research, monitoring and reporting of ghost gear, which leads to geographic gaps on the scale of the issue in many parts of the world;
  • A lack of coordinated efforts to address and assess the extent of ghost gear in the marine environment, and the associated marine species, ecosystem and health risks;
  • A lack of effective compliance and enforcement mechanisms;

No global liability and compensation mechanism for pollution by plastic, including ghost gear.