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How Can Governments Stop the Deadliest Form of Ocean Plastic?

A new report gives governments the tools to take action on ghost gear

Silhouette fisherman working on beach
© JRC_Stop Motion / Adobe Stock Images

From implementing extended producer responsibility schemes to banning harmful single-use plastic items, governments at all levels have the ability to make a big difference on all forms of ocean plastic pollution.

This is particularly true on the issue of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear—also known as ghost gear. Ghost gear is the single deadliest form of marine debris to sea life, as it continues to catch and kill animals long after it has been lost or discarded. It is also a major threat to healthy fisheries and those that depend on them for food and livelihoods: Globally, an estimated 90% of species caught in lost gear have commercial value. Gear loss occurs wherever fishing takes place, often due to rough weather, snags beneath the surface and marine traffic running it over and cutting it loose.

Since the launch of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) in 2015, 18 national governments have joined this global alliance, signaling a real desire from countries to address ghost gear in their national jurisdictions. Even still, there’s a lot of work to be done.

That’s why Ocean Conservancy’s Global Ghost Gear Initiative, in partnership with World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and Ocean Outcomes has released a new “Ghost Gear Legislation Analysis” report. Using expert interviews and a quantitative survey, the report examines existing government legislation and policies used to tackle ghost gear and provides recommendations for more effective action.

A survey of 34 ghost gear stakeholders—including 16 government actors—across 24 different countries found that most methods for preventing gear loss outlined in the GGGI’s Best Practice Framework are not being used, with 67% of respondents reporting that existing policies and legislation in their area are ineffective. The most common type of gear prevention policy used was gear marking, with roughly half of respondents reporting that this technique is used in their country; while the least commonly used policies were mandatory lost gear retrieval and national ghost gear action plans.

Notably, the top priority for additional action on ghost gear was enforcement of existing rules. Other highly-ranked strategies include passing new or amended legislation, developing governmental plans of action, developing fishery plans of action and passing new fishery regulations. However, the spread between the ranked effectiveness of each strategy was minimal, meaning that respondents believed that all of the policies were relatively important.

Like all aspects of plastic pollution, there is no one-size-fits-all approach that will solve the ghost gear problem. The findings of this report reinforce what all of us in the GGGI have long suspected: Government action on ghost gear, as it exists now, is not enough. To effectively take on ghost gear, we need a suite of locally viable solutions and we need them to be implemented now.

Taking these options in their stride, member governments of the GGGI have taken significant action on ghost gear and have benefitted from dedicated workshops, presentations and capacity building activities. The report showcases model practices through case studies, including the laws for shellfish pots in Washington state in the United States, the Marine Living Resources Act in Norway, the Common Fisheries Policy in the European Union and the Ghost Gear Fund in Canada. But as we all know, our ocean has no borders. Tackling ghost gear requires a coordinated cross-border approach and we need more countries to step up their game.

Find out more about what governments can do to stop ghost gear by reading the full report here.

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