‘Ghost gear’: The threat to the future of our oceans

Ghost gear is arguably a far more important marine resource sustainability issue than plastic, argues Rathbones’ Matt Crossman

“Ghost nets are tragically efficient – once they’ve been discarded, they continue to catch fish.” WWF

The year 1997 was a bittersweet time to be a lobsterman off the coast of Maine. Fishermen were setting double the number of traps of their predecessors; boosted by increasing demand. Times were good, business was booming, yet a new set of regulations threatened to upend this prosperity.

The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) was concerned by the plight of the Northern Right Whale, whose migration was impeded by abandoned or damaged fishing gear in the Maine area. The proposed regulation was poorly designed and united both business and the environmental lobby in their intense criticism. But it brought to light a particular ‘tragedy of the commons’ which remains with us today. 20 years on this ‘abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear’ (‘ALDFG’, ‘ghost gear’ or ‘derelict gear’) remains an under-investigated ESG risk.

Around 640,000 tonnes of ‘ghost gear’ pollutes our oceans each year, with the potential to entangle and injure all manner of marine life, including endangered species. It is a significant contributor to an enormous issue that must be addressed to protect ocean life and secure the future of oceans as a productive and sustainable global food resource. Though it receives less attention in the media, it’s impact is more serious than consumer waste in the oceans.

The problem has existed for decades, but we still lack a complete picture. While its scale is regional, the impact is felt at the ecosystem level. Unlike fly-tipping on land, ghost gear ends up spread across a vast area. A major challenge has been creating traceability for lost gear and enforcing better stewardship on the fishing industry.

Thankfully, a cross sectoral body was convened in 2015 looking to address these risks. Founded by World Animal Protection, The Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) is an alliance committed to driving solutions to this problem worldwide. The GGGI has conducted important work in assessing exactly which fishing gear technologies pose the greatest risk to ecosystems.

Most people would assume that ocean trawlers, the likes of which drew protests from Greenpeace in the 1990s, would be the most damaging, but surprisingly, they are not the main villain here. That’s because those nets are very expensive to make and maintain, and so the operators have a clear incentive to recover them on damage.

Far more worrying is the global use of ‘Gillnets’ – a single wall of netting that can be fixed or allowed to drift, whether placed at the water’s surface or the seabed. Gillnets have a very high loss rate, as they often come in contact with other fishing technologies and are commonly placed in strong tidal areas. Being relatively cheap provides little incentive to recover them, and the features that make them effective for fishing mean they are just as effective in entangling marine life.

The geographical exposure makes engagement on the issue by ESG-minded investors challenging. Reporting in 2017, GGGI estimated that the fisheries sector employed around 39 million people, with 78% of fisheries located in Asia. The major companies targeted in benchmarking exercises are hardly household names, although important to the industry. Investor action in the area has been slow to take off, despite the systemic threat posed to fisheries.

Our first steps into engaging with the industry have been in sustainable fisheries standards. Most consumers consider the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) sustainable fisheries standards as a one-stop assurance of sustainably sourced fish. Until last year, the issue of ghost gear was not included in the assessment of producers’ marine sustainability practices. In September 2019, Rathbones and other PRI members took the important step of calling on the MSC to formally include ghost gear in its certification standards. The reply from the MSC in January 2020 was encouraging, stating that if a fishery is to be considered best practice by the Fisheries Standard, they should have knowledge of the scale of gear loss and the resulting impact on oceans.  

As with any ‘tragedy of the commons’ the key to solving it is in aligning previously uninterested stakeholders in harmonising their efforts. The conundrum is structural – gillnets are cheap, and there are few incentives to track and trace their use. But what if that changed? What if net supply could be shifted to a subscription or rental model, or even a deposit system? What if ghost gear became a raw material? Or low-cost radio frequency identification technology could be integrated into nets to ensure owners were liable?

Such methods have been proven to work in other sectors and would go a long way to solving the issue.

Matt Crossman is stewardship director at Rathbones and editorial panellist for ESG Clarity

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Natalie Kenway

Natalie is global head of ESG insight for ESG Clarity and has been an investment journalist for 16 years. She won Editor of the Year at the Aviva Investors Sustainability Media Awards 2021, and was Winner...