The United Nations’ Plastics Agreement Must Include Ghost Gear

We can’t talk about the plastics treaty without talking about ghost gear

My colleagues and I like to joke that the United Nations Ocean Conference (UNOC) is the World Cup of ocean conferences. Like the World Cup, it happens only every few years, and all the top teams, players and decision-makers are there. This week, several thousand people from around the globe are expected to gather in Lisbon, Portugal, for the first UNOC since before the pandemic. As you can imagine, the fans (or in this case, ocean lovers) are thrilled.

What makes this year’s gathering extra special is that since February, the United Nations has been negotiating an international legally binding instrument to address ocean-plastic pollution. It’s as if the World Cup were happening the same year FIFA was considering a major new rule change that would impact the sport for years to come: You couldn’t watch one without thinking about the other.

Similarly, we can’t talk about UNOC without talking about the plastics treaty. This conference is a huge opportunity for members to galvanize support for global legislation on this critical ocean issue.

And for us at Ocean Conservancy, we can’t talk about the plastics treaty without talking about ghost gear.

While we are glad to see immense progress and willingness to address the issue of ocean plastic, thus far, abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) has not been explicitly mentioned in the international legally binding instrument on plastics.

ALDFG, also known as ghost gear, is both the most harmful form of marine debris and one of the most significant contributors to ocean plastics. A single abandoned net is estimated to kill an average of 500,000 marine invertebrates(think crabs and shrimp), 1,700 fish and four seabirds. Some estimates show that an as much as 30% decline in fish stocks can be attributed to ghost gear.

Furthermore, scientists estimate that up to 70% of all floating macroplastics in ocean gyres by weight are from ALDFG. When swallowed, ocean plastics have been shown to block the digestive tracks and eventually kill marine animals of all sizes. In May 2020, after performing a necropsy on a 47-foot-long beached sperm whale, scientists discovered that its stomach was filled with a mass of fishing line, fishing nets and other plastics which prevented it from absorbing nutrients.

The science is clear—ghost gear, a major source of ocean plastics, must be addressed in order to protect marine life and environments, and the fisher and coastal communities that rely on it for their livelihoods. Thus, if we want to collectively tackle plastic pollution and its impact on the environment, a holistic strategy must include recognition of the threat of ghost gear and binding measures to prevent and mitigate its impacts on an international level.

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative at Ocean Conservancy already has twenty national government members, many of whom are also member states of the United Nations, that recognize the threat of ghost gear and have committed to addressing it through their national policies. While this is a great start, having the United Nations at large recognize the threat of ghost gear and include it as a legally binding measure in their plan to combat plastic pollution is the kind of bold action needed to meet a crisis of this magnitude head on.

We hope that the United Nations member states and negotiators will take ghost gear into consideration as negotiations continue on the international binding instrument on plastics. Doing so would be the single most impactful and binding agreement to address ghost gear ever enacted and an incredible feat in the fight to protect our ocean.

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