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The Gap Year Blog

The Dark Secret of Ghost Fishing

21 Sep 2017 14:15 PM

It may sound like some kind of paranormal leisure activity but ghost fishing is actually a devastating by-product of human fishing practices.   

When fishing gear is lost, dumped or abandoned at sea it essentially continues the capture process unmanned, entangling and often killing marine life. Nets, long lines, fish traps and any man-made devise designed to catch fish are all considered capable of ghost fishing. It is estimated that 640,000 tonnes of lost or discarded fishing gear enters our oceans each year – that’s about 10% of all marine litter!

A vicious cycle develops when marine life trapped in ghost gear die, thus attracting scavengers that also get caught and die. The result is a continuous amplification of the issue, otherwise known as a ‘positive feedback loop’.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons | Doug Helton

Prior to around the 1950’s, biodegradable materials such as hemp or cotton were used to make fishing nets. By contrast, modern day nets are mostly made from plastic, which as we all know is a stubborn bio-degrader! The advent of plastic fishing nets means that they can now remain intact, entangling marine life for up to 600 years in the ocean.  Even once they finally begin to break up, further damage is caused to fish as they consume the small particles of floating plastic.

It would be easy to feel angry towards the fishing industry for creating this problem. However, nine times out of ten the nets, lobster pots, lines etc. are lost due to factors beyond the fisherman’s control. It’s certainly within the fishing communities best interests to tackle the ghost fishing issue. Commercial fish stocks are already under threat globally due to overfishing and climate change. The last thing most fishermen want is to deplete their source of income further by nonchalantly tossing unneeded equipment overboard. Adverse weather conditions is the main reason gear gets lost at sea but other factors, such as nets getting entangled on already deployed traps, can also occur.

Photo Credit: Ghostgear.org | Northwest straits foundation

Unless drastic action is taken, the amount of ghost gear in the ocean will continue to accumulate and the impact this has on marine life will worsen. So what can be done to prevent it? Several potential strategies have been proposed:

Financial incentives

This would reward fishermen that report or recover any lost gear they come across.


By tagging fishing gear with electronic or acoustic devices, it will be easier for recovery teams to locate. This would also make it easier to identify the offenders that discarded it.

Degradable panels

This would ensure that an escape route becomes available for any marine life that gets trapped.

Improved recycling facilities at ports

Old or damaged fishing gear needs to be disposed of correctly. If all ports had adequate recycling, disposal and collection schemes then it may reduce the amount of gear fishermen dump at sea.

Solutions for ghost fishing clearly exist but it will take a combined global effort to achieve them. Government and industry will need to take the lead by implementing policy changes that mitigate the problem. If this happens then hopefully ghost fishing gear will stop haunting our oceans!

By Keith Edwards - UK Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!