This blog was written by Jenna Schwerzmann, Joanna Toole Ghost Gear Awardee. Originally from upstate New York, Jenna began her marine conservation career on Long Island after graduating from Stony Brook University with a B.S. in Marine Vertebrate Biology and M.A. in Marine Conservation and Policy. She has experience with both research and outreach for local estuarine conservation efforts, including horseshoe crab monitoring, shellfish restoration and water quality projects, all through Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program. Jenna has also volunteered aboard whale watches since 2015 and interned at NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester, Massachusetts to assist with outreach for the Whale SENSE Program.
Tuna is one of the most popular seafood choices in the United States. What other fish gets packed into school lunches, rolled into sushi, melted into diner classics, topped on poke bowls AND served as seared steaks? Despite tuna’s popularity, consumers may have little knowledge of how it reaches their plates. That journey can be complicated, and tuna fishing methods vary.
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The International Pole and Line Foundation (IPNLF) is a UK-registered charity based in the Maldives, a tuna-fishing epicenter. Most of their tuna is caught with pole and line. This is one of the most sustainable ways to fish since it targets individuals of a species, reducing the potential for bycatch and accidental damage to the environment. Commercial fishing, however, is forbidden in the Maldives but large commercial nets are still found covering Maldivian reefs. Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG), also known as “ghost gear,” can drift long distances in currents from the Indian Ocean and tend to accumulate in “hot spots.” Massive bundles of fishing gear can create a problem for marine life, especially for sea turtles. Their natural behaviors often bring them to the surface to feed or breathe, and if caught in floating gear, they can drown.
There are a few factors that contribute to drifting nets in the region: the lack of disposal facilities or recycling opportunities for old nets, lack of education, limited resources of coastal communities, continually increasing fishing pressure and the lack of regulation. However, the IPNLF is working to address these factors with the additional support from Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), part of Ocean Conservancy’s Trash Free Seas© program.
Earlier this year, IPNLF became one of the first winners of the Joanna Toole Ghost Gear Solutions Award through World Animal Protection, the Joanna Toole Foundation, the GGGI and Ocean Conservancy. The award allowed them to expand their efforts and collaborate with another GGGI member, the Olive Ridley Project, to implement a pilot project in the Maldives. This project aims to incentivize small-scale tuna fishers to collect ghost fishing gear from the ocean when they come across it while fishing and bring it back to shore. Since these small-scale fishers only use poles for their catch and have minimal gear loss, they expect to remove more ghost gear from the ocean by weight than the modest amounts that their industry might lose.
The award that makes this work possible is dedicated to one of the GGGI’s co-founders, Joanna Toole. Unfortunately, Joanna lost her life in the March 2019 Ethiopian Airlines crash. Her loss is deeply felt by all who knew her, but her impact lives on today. The Joanna Toole Annual Ghost Gear Solutions Award is one of the many ways that Joanna has influenced positive actions on ghost gear. It is awarded to the most deserving project as determined by a group of experts from the GGGI, Joanna Toole Foundation and World Animal Protection that creates compelling strategies to combat ghost gear. The new nominees for the 2020 award will be announced later this month.
Since earning the Joanna Toole Annual Ghost Gear Solutions Award, IPNLF has been working hard to bring ghost gear solutions to fruition. Collection and recovery of ghost gear is currently on pause, as most Maldivian fishing boats remain docked due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, but gear recovery is only a small part of the solution. IPNLF is setting up for success in other ways, as outlined in a recent update from their team. They held a stakeholder meeting to address solutions from all sides of the issue, which included members of the island council in Gemanafushi, members of the fishing industry and the local Women’s Development Committee (WDC). This meeting led to the refinement of their retrieval protocols and acquiring facility space for ghost gear storage, offered by a local seafood company, Maldives Industrial Fisheries Company (MIFCO). The stakeholders are also creating circular economy opportunities for used fishing gear with the help of the WDC to process and repurpose recovered ghost gear into new items that can be sold for a profit with the hope that this will help sustain the project long after the closing date of the Joanna Toole award.
We are so excited that IPNLF is collaborating with ocean leaders in the Maldives for clean and healthy tuna habitat. Working together, they will contribute to a future with thriving seas, both abundant for fishers and their communities and free from the harm caused by ghost gear.