ghost fishing gear

Ghost Gear: An Ocean of Plastic Trouble

ghost fishing gear
Photo courtesy of Ghost Fishing UK

To date, the majority of policy in Canada is designed to reduce plastic pollution in the marine environment has been targeted at single-use materials. But we find that the volume of single-use plastics pales in comparison to the amount of abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear that we encounter, especially in more remote areas of the country.

Lucas Harris, Executive Director (Surfrider Foundation Canada)

Lost or abandoned fishing gear, also known as “ghost gear,” is a significant cause of marine plastic pollution and is responsible for the ongoing deaths of thousands of fish and other marine life. Ghost Gear: Recommendations for a Comprehensive Canadian Legal Scheme, a recent ELC publication prepared for Surfrider Foundation, documents the urgent need for Canada to take steps to solve the problem.

The problem is widescale. Recent shoreline cleanup work occurring in more remote areas in Canada has started to demonstrate the true impact of ghost gear. For example, in 2020 and 2021, BC provided funding to businesses, coastal communities and First Nations impacted by the economic downturn associated with the lack of tourism activity that resulted from the COVID-19 pandemic to perform shoreline cleanup activity. The Clean Coast Clean Waters initiative was the largest cleanup project in the history of the province and occurred in coastal communities across BC, with a large focus on remote shorelines. In 2020, five companies who received funding for cleanup projects noted that waste from the fishing industry accounted for about 70% of garbage collected in the 61-tonne haul.

To fully reduce the impact of plastics in the marine environment, we need to develop interventions that help reduce marine debris that originate from commercial fishing and related activities. While there has been some work focused on the cleanup and end-of-life management of these materials in Canada, it seems as though very few interventions have been implemented that target preventing this form of pollution.

The ELC submission explains the regulatory environment for the use and end-of-life management of ghost gear in Canada; provides a jurisdictional scan of approaches other countries have implemented to reduce and respond to ghost gear; and outlines recommendations or best practices that could be applied here in Canada to reduce ghost gear pollution in the marine environment.

Access to information on ghost gear policies and programs in Canada is limited and is not generally publicly available. Also, while some data collection has begun, there are significant gaps with respect to the origins and manufacturers of fishing gear used in Canada, types of fishing industries, types of gear used and the needs of fishers when it comes to addressing barriers and incentives to better prevent and manage ghost gear.

The steps governments have taken in recent years to establish new polices and programs to deal with ghost gear are important; however, more needs to be done for Canada to fulfill its international obligations and fully address the problem.

The submission notes the importance in prioritizing the prevention of ghost gear. It also includes recommendations to the federal government to:

  • Ensure rules don’t prevent harvesters from retrieving ghost gear;
  • Provide incentives to retrieve and recycle ghost gear;
  • Improve the reporting program for ghost gear and extend it to others on the water, such as Guardians or recreational users;
  • Follow the EU’s lead by adopting Extended Producer Responsibility rules; and
  • Clearly communicate the laws, regulations, and programs around ghost gear

Ghost gear pollution impacts shorelines around the world; but with the longest coastline in the world, Canada has the opportunity to be a key leader in establishing laws, regulations and programs to better tackle the problem.