Ghosts in the ocean – it’s time to take on plastic pollution from the fishing industry

During the past couple of years, we have been flooded with images of rubbish floating in the ocean, animals trapped in plastic debris and other alarming signs that our habits are having a devastating impact on the marine environment.

While approximately 80 per cent of marine plastic pollution originates from land – the plastic bottles, bags and packaging you’re used to hearing about – the remaining 20 per cent comes from what is known as ‘sea-based sources’, including plastic from fishing boats, shipping, offshore industries and tourism.

Of all the sea-based sources of marine plastic pollution, the most common, and also the most harmful, is lost and discarded fishing gear, also referred to as ‘ghost gear’.

Ghost gear accounts for approximately 10 per cent of global marine plastic pollution, although in some areas it’s closer to half of the amount of litter found. Made from hardy plastic and designed to catch and kill, once it’s lost in the ocean the gear continues to carry out this deadly function indiscriminately.

Ghost gear has serious impacts on marine habitats and fish stocks while also reducing fishing profits, destroying marine resources and increasing operational costs for vessels through gear replacement and retrieval efforts. Once in the water, it also represents a navigational and safety hazard as floating nets and ropes threaten to entangle propellers and active fishing gear.


Whose problem is it?

Perched on the banks of the River Thames, the International Maritime Organization (IMO), created in 1948, is the primary international body dealing with maritime safety and security, marine pollution and shipping. Yet, despite its acknowledgement of shipping’s contribution to plastic pollution, momentum to adequately address it has been woefully lacking. Until now.

The IMO has long recognised the need to prevent plastic pollution from ships, including fishing vessels and gear. However, in recent years the issue of managing plastic pollution from fishing vessels has become a political hot potato as responsibility for developing and enforcing legislation to address it is passed between international organisations, with tangible progress ultimately falling through the cracks as a result.

In 2018, significant strides were made by the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) to adopt guidance for the marking and tracking of fishing gear, shining a light on how a combination of coordinated measures could effectively prevent and reduce the problem of ghost gear.

Since the adoption of the Voluntary Guidelines for the Marking of Fishing Gear, there is now a powerful tool in the arsenal, although the guidelines remain voluntary and so uptake is limited.

Against this background, in late 2018, the Marine Environment Protection Committee (MEPC) at IMO adopted an Action Plan to Address Marine Plastic Litter from Ships and is now turning toward implementation of this ambitious strategy. A major benchmark for the success or failure of the Action Plan will be whether it adopts a comprehensive package of mandatory and other measures required to address ghost gear. Indeed, the world is watching – and expecting – the IMO to show leadership on this issue.


The case for action

EIA’s new briefing outlines how we think the IMO can lead the charge and meaningfully address ghost gear by coordinating and overseeing international efforts to improve the reporting of lost fishing gear, operationalising the FAO guidelines on gear marking and aiding in their implementation, clarifying the currently legal ambiguities which prevent effective enforcement and, finally, providing clear guidance on portside measures that will remove incentives to dump plastic at sea.

As an inherently transboundary challenge, tackling ghost gear needs coordination at a national, regional and international level through both voluntary and mandatory efforts.

As the IMO moves towards implementing the Action Plan, there are key opportunities coming up via the Marine Environment Protection Committee where we hope to see member states prioritise actions to address ghost gear and show leadership on protecting our oceans from plastic pollution.