How Tackling Ghost Gear Can Help Mitigate the Impacts of Climate Change

Exploring the link between extreme weather and gear loss

In October 2021, I had the honor of joining world leaders, activists and other representatives from non-governmental organizations in Glasgow for the United Nations Climate Change Conference (also known as COP26). The central message of the conference was abundantly clear: the impacts of climate change are all around us. It is no longer a question of if climate change will happen, but instead, to what degree and how we will respond. Now, as I am preparing for the Our Ocean Conference in Palau—one of the small island states being heavily affected by rising sea levels—those thoughts remain at the forefront of my mind.

As the Director of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) at Ocean Conservancy, I am eager to do my part. You might be wondering what ghost gear could have to do with climate change. In fact, solving the issue of ghost gear (abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear) is closely linked with many of the United Nations’ 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These goals include ending hunger, ensuring sustainable consumption and production patterns, and conserving and sustainably using marine resources, among others.

Climate change stresses marine environments, threatens the wildlife that live there and harms the communities reliant on these ecosystems.

Ghost gear exacerbates these same problems. Ocean Conservancy research has found that ghost gear is the most harmful form of marine debris. It is estimated to be responsible for a 5-30% decline in some fish populations and causes considerable damage to marine habitats.

Conversely, climate change also compounds the ghost gear problem. One of the impacts of climate change is more frequent and severe weather events. Such events increase the occurrence of gear loss, especially in small scale fisheries that coastal communities rely on for their subsistence and/or livelihoods.

In fact, our partners are already reporting the impacts of climate change on their fishing operations. During a workshop conducted by GGGI in the Caribbean, participants attributed gear loss primarily to severe weather and snags. They also expressed concerns that the impacts of climate change, particularly an increase in hurricane frequency, could result in a greater volume of gear loss and that more needs to be done to prevent, mitigate and remediate these losses.

The GGGI has assisted the UK Center for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas) and World Bank in co-developing the Caribbean Oceans and Aquaculture Sustainability FaciliTy (COAST) checklist. COAST is a kind of non-traditional insurance being used to help developing economies in the Caribbean access the funding needed to bounce back quickly from severe weather events, like those caused by climate change. The COAST checklist incorporates elements of the GGGI Best Practice Framework to inform funding and guide government and industry practices, while incentivizing good fishery management.

Another way GGGI is helping address gear loss is through the incorporation of better tracking mechanisms and conducting gear technology trials. Without proper identification, when gear becomes lost at sea, it can be difficult to return to the original owner; and without proper tracking, lost gear can be hard to retrieve quickly, or at all, costing fishers both time and money. Some lost gear can even “ghost fish”, a phenomenon in which gear left at sea continues to catch, trap or entangle marine life and targeted species. Gear technology trials are vital to supporting gear retrieval and limiting ghost fishing. The GGGI has successfully trialled gear marking systems in Indonesia and the South Pacific, and two types of gear marking and retrieval technologies are currently successfully being pilot tested in Jamaica’s spiny lobster fishery.

Coastal communities and fisheries that are prepared for climate change and addressing gear loss are taking action to create a more sustainable future.

Preventing gear loss is just one of many ways Ocean Conservancy is working to address climate change through the protection of our ocean and the many creatures that call it home. While we have a lot of work ahead of us, we are proud to work each day towards a healthy and resilient ocean in the face of climate change.

Our work is focused on solving some of the greatest threats facing our ocean today. We bring people, science and policy together to champion innovative solutions and fight for a sustainable ocean.
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