The Ghosts of Fishers Past

Lost fishing gear keeps on doing the job it was designed for long after its owners are gone.

Published January 22, 2016

Lacuna is like most other humpback whales in the Atlantic Ocean. He overwinters in warm Caribbean waters—where humpbacks breed and give birth—and heads north in spring, toward colder waters to feast on the abundance of krill, copepods, and other tiny marine life.

For nearly two decades, Lacuna, recognizable by the unique pattern of black and white marks on the underside of his tail fluke, has beaten the same watery path from the southern Atlantic to the Bay of Fundy in eastern Canada without incident, managing to avoid the dangers an animal his size might encounter. But last July when whale watchers spotted him in the bay, he was entangled in ropes—he had run afoul of fishing gear.

Although it was impossible to tell the origin of the gear Lacuna was hauling around, the whale’s plight highlighted a growing threat worldwide, abandoned or lost fishing gear that endangers marine life—ghost gear. Ghost gear does the job it was designed for: to catch marine animals. The problem is that it continues to catch fish, turtles, birds, and whales, for as long as the gear exists. Even worse, as animals die in lost traps or nets, they act as bait to attract other marine life and the cycle continues for years or even centuries.

Around 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost or abandoned worldwide each year, accounting for around 10 percent of all marine litter. Ghost gear entangles and kills an estimated 136,000 whales, seals, and other marine mammals annually, and likely millions more animals with lower profiles: fish, crustaceans, turtles, and birds.


High-profile entanglements like Lacuna’s have prompted fishers in the Bay of Fundy to do something about ghost gear. “The last thing we want to see is our fishing gear entangled on a whale,” says Maria Recchia, executive director of the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association (FNFA). “That’s a real black mark on us.”

Reid Brown, a taciturn veteran fisher from New Brunswick’s Deer Island, is one of 15 fishers from FNFA who is working to clean up the area. When not catching halibut, scallops, and sardines he’s fishing for his colleagues’ lost and abandoned gear.


Reid Brown, a New Brunswick fisher, regularly fishes for lost gear. Photo by Brian Owens

Dragging a 450-kilogram grapple—a homemade device that resembles a trio of spiky anchors—behind his boat the Rebecca & Shelley, Brown trawls the seafloor of Passamaquoddy Bay, an offshoot of the Bay of Fundy between New Brunswick and Maine, in search of derelict lobster traps and other debris. He’s logged some impressive hauls. The largest one included more than 30 lobster traps, some as much as 12 years old, as well as a tangle of rope thousands of meters long, a net half the size of a football field designed to keep birds out of aquaculture pens, a spruce log the size of a telephone pole, a gill net, and a small boat anchor. “You can really feel it when you snag a big bundle of them,” he says.

Ask any lobsterman, and you’ll learn that losing traps is a costly fact of life and something they work hard to avoid. It’s not unusual for a fisher with about 300 traps to lose around 10 to 15 traps a season. The traps are lost when boat propellers slice through the ropes, or when strong currents and powerful tides drag the traps around. They snag together, growing into bigger and bigger snarls like underwater snowballs. Sometimes the best places for fishing can be the worst for losing traps, such as the “cod hole,” a large depression in the seafloor near Deer Island that is filled with fish and lobsters, but also traps from several boats, and swirling eddies that can tangle the gear.

Aside from being a menace to marine animals, lost traps are an economic headache for the fishers. The traps and attached rope cost up to CAN $200, but even worse, when traps go missing, their owners miss out on the lobsters they would have brought in. Losing 10 traps could mean forgoing as much as $5,000 worth of lobsters in a season, says Brown.

The combined environmental and economic costs were behind the FNFA’s decision to clean up ghost gear. Since 2008, they have retrieved 1,000 traps, as well as more than 23 kilometers of rope, almost 700 meters of metal cable, 76 buoys, and a collection of other debris including nets, chains, and the front axle and wheels of a truck from the 1940s. About half of the traps and a lot of the rope were still usable, and in many cases could be returned to their owners, says Brown, although “it was a lot of work to untangle it.”



Reid Brown pulls up ghost gear from the ocean off Canada’s east coast. Photo courtesy of the Fundy North Fishermen’s Association

Lacuna hauled around his necklace of rope most of the summer. For weeks local volunteers tried to free him. The only volunteer whale disentanglement team in the area, from New Brunswick’s Campobello Island, tried three times in mid-July, but after their first attempt Lacuna fled whenever they came near. A scientific study team from Massachusetts working in the area glimpsed Lacuna and tried to help him, but fog and rough seas kept them from getting close enough. By September, Lacuna had not been seen for several weeks.

That same month Lacuna disappeared from view, the international organization World Animal Protection held its first Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) meeting in London, England. Around 75 people dedicated to preserving marine life, from environmental groups, government agencies, the fishing industry, and seafood companies, gathered to share ideas about how to tackle the problem and save the hundreds of thousands of animals entangled and killed each year.

“There’s lots of good local work and excellent solutions already, but what’s missing is a coordinated framework to tackle it globally,” says Katherine George, project manager of the GGGI.

Groups from around the world, including FNFA, have joined the GGGI to help develop an international plan for dealing with ghost gear. There is currently little regulation and a lack of enforcement regarding fishing gear once it’s off the boat.

The Global Tuna Conservation program has been focusing on a source of ghost gear that is deliberately tossed overboard—the fish aggregating devices (FADs) used by the tuna industry to attract and corral tuna. Since tuna and other marine animals like to hang around floating objects in the open ocean, tuna boats attach big bundles of nets and other garbage to a floating raft, equip it with a satellite tag or radio beacon, and dump it overboard. They return later to scoop up the tuna that has gathered underneath.


A gray seal caught in a fishing net off the coast of England. Photo by Alex Mustard/Nature Picture Library/Corbis

The FADs hang down hundreds of meters into the water column, where they entangle and kill animals such as sharks and turtles. The Pew Charitable Trusts estimates that since 2013 alone, the total number of drifting FADs tossed overboard is between 81,000 and 121,000—and the vast majority are never recovered, or even seen again by fishers. “There is an extraordinarily large amount of gear floating around out there, still aggregating fish, but most of them are never fished,” says Amanda Nickson, director of Global Tuna Conservation at Pew. “There are pretty much no rules, they can just leave it out there as garbage. You wouldn’t see that in any other Earth environment.”

So Pew is working to tighten the rules with a group of eight Pacific island nations in whose waters the majority of skipjack tuna fishing takes place. Starting this year, these countries will require fishing boats to share satellite tracking data with their national fisheries departments, and with conservation scientists, so that the FADs can be monitored and studied after being released. It’s a start, but what Nickson would really like to see is a limit on how many FADs can be released, and a requirement that fishers must pick them up again.

Other groups around the world are also developing strategies to clean up the oceans. To help whales like Lacuna, the World Cetacean Alliance (WCA) mobilizes whale watching tour companies through its Net Effect campaign. The program provides companies with education packages they can share with their customers and gets them involved in mapping and cleaning up the derelict gear they spot when out at sea. Lacuna is far from alone in having trouble with fishing gear. Whale entanglements are on the rise: in 2014, 30 whales were seen entangled in fishing gear, mostly crab pots, on the US Pacific coast, nearly double the number seen the previous year. And in the first half of 2015, 25 whales were seen entangled in California alone.

This spring, the WCA will send the education packs to 700 tour companies in 24 countries, and hopes to reach 500,000 customers.


A juvenile gray whale off the coast of Mexico with rope caught in its mouth and baleen. Photo by Brandon Cole/naturepl.com

In Australia, the conservation group GhostNets Australia supports indigenous rangers who patrol the coast cleaning up nets and rescuing entangled turtles and other wildlife. The group is also building a database of lost nets to determine where they are coming from, so that prevention activities can focus on the right areas.

“We’ve seen a marked decrease in ghost gear recently,” Riki Gunn, founder and coordinator of GhostNets Australia, told the London meeting. “We think we’re starting to have an effect.”

On the other side of the Pacific, the Northwest Straits Initiative in Washington State has collected more than 5,000 derelict fishing nets and 3,000 shellfish traps over the past 13 years, built a state-wide database of derelict fishing gear, and initiated a program encouraging fishers to report lost nets. Last year they began a pilot project using remotely operated vehicles to retrieve lost nets from deep water.


Projects like these are making some progress toward tidier oceans, and the group at the London meeting was optimistic about future efforts. But cleaning up ghost gear isn’t as simple as hauling derelict nets and traps out of the sea: strict fishing regulations create complications. “It’s actually illegal [in most jurisdictions] to handle another fisherman’s gear,” says Laura Ludwig, a coordinator of marine debris projects at the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

It’s also expensive. Fishers like Reid Brown can’t afford to spend time on the water hunting for ghost gear unless they’ve at least covered their fuel expenses, which can run as much as $200 a day. To fund the FNFA’s efforts, Maria Recchia scraped together money from a variety of sources, including the Canadian government’s fisheries and environment departments, and fishers themselves.



Off the coast of Thailand, a fishing net entangles and smothers a coral reef. Photo by Norbert Wu/Minden Pictures/Corbis

There’s also the question of what to do with the collected gear and other debris. The government and privately funded program Fishing for Energy provides large collection bins at 37 ports where anyone can dump unwanted or recovered derelict gear. The nets, traps, and other debris is sorted, with metal being recycled and the rest going to incinerators to generate electricity. But the drop-off points are often overburdened, says Ludwig, and most other recycling centers refuse fishing gear because it is too difficult to process. Gear often ends up in the dump, where fishers usually have to pay a fee.

The FNFA has the same problem: retrieving and disposing of gear is costly. “Some recovered gear can’t be reused or recycled, and there is no easy way to dispose of it,” says Recchia. “Disposal takes up a big part of our budget.”

The FNFA is shifting its focus from clean up to prevention. If they can reduce the number of traps lost in the first place, then future clean-up efforts will be much easier.

“If we do a little bit of clean up every year at a few key points, we’ll keep it clean,” says Brown. “In the last couple of years, I haven’t heard of anyone losing traps in the cod hole.”

No matter how many abandoned nets we pull out of the sea or lost traps we dredge up from the cod hole, though, eradicating ghost gear will take time. But sometimes, these stories can have a happy ending. Despite the failure of many dedicated volunteers to help Lacuna, he somehow managed to help himself. He was last seen in mid-October, free of any ropes, ready to begin his winter migration.