Netting data to bury phanton fishing

Coordinating data collection and collaborating with fishers are key requirements in successfully dealing with the global issue of ghost gear

Screenshot of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative websiteThe Global Ghost Gear Initiative website highlights clean-up activities around the world.

By Annabel Boyer

Lost fishing gear represents about 10 per cent of marine debris. About 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is set adrift in the oceans every year, creating hazards for wildlife, people and boats.

As global initiatives to address the problem ramp up, Australia’s experience in tackling abandoned gear in the Gulf of Carpentaria is helping to provide a roadmap for action.

In 2004 GhostNets Australia was set up to coordinate the response of local communities and Indigenous rangers in locating and retrieving the increasing volume of derelict fishing gear finding its way into the gulf.

As gear was retrieved, data on gear type and retrieval location was collected, allowing the GhostNets team to work with CSIRO researchers to find out where the gear was coming from. Using ocean modelling, researchers found that most nets were coming from gillnet and trawl fisheries in Indonesia’s Arafura Sea territory.

“If you identify the fishery you have a better chance of resolving the issue because you can work with that fishery,” says Riki Gunn, who was executive officer of GhostNets Australia at the time.

After the Indonesian Government began developing its first fishery management plan for the Arafura Sea in 2014, the GhostNets Australia team held six workshops over two years to improve the flow of information between Australian and Indonesian fishers and government officials.

Fishing insights

Insights from the workshops included the link between gear loss and high fishing pressure; there was a high incidence of illegal fishing in the Arafura Sea. Conservative estimates indicated 3000 vessels were fishing in the area, putting huge pressure on available resources.

Riki Gunn says illegal fishing vessels are more likely to abandon gear in order to conceal their activities. Increased competition also forced local fishers to adapt by fishing in more challenging conditions and to use damaged gear, which they could not afford to repair. This resulted in more lost and abandoned gear.

After identifying the issue, satellite technology was used to detect illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing, which led to the well-publicised destruction of illegal fishing boats by an Indonesian Government keen to make an example of them.

Riki Gunn says that, anecdotally, less ghost gear is now being found in the Gulf of Carpentaria. At the same time, there are fewer vessels fishing in the Arafura Sea.

The Australian experience highlights the benefits of working with fishers to understand the issues they are dealing with and manage fisheries accordingly. It also illustrates the interconnected nature of the challenges.

Global initiatives

In 2016 the United Nations formally recognised ghost gear as a global concern and a threat to marine organisms and ecosystems.

At the time, Riki Gunn was on the steering committee of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), an international organisation working to highlight and tackle the issue of ghost gear, although she has now moved on. GGGI members range from fishers and community groups to state agencies, environmental organisations, researchers and governments.

Many small groups around the world, such as GhostNets Australia, retrieve and clean up lost fishing gear and other marine debris, but most are working in isolation and each group collects and categorises its data differently.

The GGGI is working to bring all this information together in a consistent way to create a more accurate and comprehensive global picture of causes and effects. Its efforts include a smartphone application to capture useable data about the locations and kinds of gear being lost or abandoned: position, date and gear class (net, pot or fishing aggregate device). All available information is being fed into an online data portal (

Best practice

Annie Jarrett, the chief executive officer of the Northern Prawn Fishery Industry Pty Ltd, is a member of the Best Practices and Inform Policies working group of the GGGI, which finalised its best practice framework in October 2017.

She says the guidelines aim to reduce the likelihood of loss, particularly targeting gear types most likely to cause harm to marine organisms. Gear is assessed by frequency and volume of use, likelihood of being lost or discarded, and impact on marine life.

For fishers, the best practice framework recommends:

  • reduced soak times for gear;
  • usage limits in locations and at times when gear is more likely to be lost due to environmental conditions;
  • responsible storage of gear; and
  • introducing mechanisms for the reporting and retrieval of lost gear.

The framework also recommends requiring ownership marks on gear. This could help authorities prosecute IUU fishers should unmarked gear be found in a location where all gear must be marked. 

The framework includes working with other stakeholders such as gear manufacturers and fisheries organisations with recommendations to embed traceability in gear, develop biodegradable gear, develop incentives to return redundant gear and to have fisheries organisations implement codes of practice.

Annie Jarrett stresses the need to work with commercial fishers to solve the issue.

“We need voluntary buy-in from industry. I don’t want it to operate as just another ‘top down’ impediment placed on fisheries from above. It would be great to see all Australian fisheries adopt the framework.”

The Northern Prawn Fishery (NPF) has been proactive in dealing with the issue of ghost gear since the 1990s, with behavioural changes such as the proper stowing of gear. Dumping of nets at sea, once a common practice, is no longer acceptable.

Annie Jarrett says only about four per cent of ghost gear reported in the NPF comes from Australian vessels. “The big thing for our guys now is reporting ghost gear.”

Education about monitoring, reporting and where possible retrieving ghost gear is part of the briefing attended by NPF skippers twice a year and information on gear retrieval and reporting is also included in the NPF Operations Manual. 

Re-use solutions

A shift in perception that makes old nets a valuable resource instead of waste can help solve the issue of ghost gear, and diverse initiatives are already underway around the world.

Energy from fishing gear

Since 2008, the Fishing for Energy partnership has provided collection bins at participating ports in multiple states in the US. Gear collected at the ports is first sorted for metals recycling, and the remaining non-recyclable material is converted into energy. About one tonne of derelict nets creates enough electricity to power one home for 25 days.

Nets become carpet

Net-Works operates in the Philippines and Cameroon to empower coastal communities to collect and sell used fishing nets. These are recycled into yarn for carpet tiles.

Fish net skateboards

Skateboard maker Bureo buys old, worn-out fishing nets from fishers. It also works with local families who salvage nets from beaches. Old nets are transported to a warehouse, shredded, melted down and made into nylon pellets, which are injection-moulded into Bureo’s signature fish-scale-patterned skateboards.

From fishing to fashion

Nylon waste such as fishing nets is being transformed into first-grade nylon for the production of apparel and other textile products. The regenerated nylon yarn is called Econyl®.

Textiles in Pakistan

In Rehmangoth, Pakistan, ghost gear recovered by local divers is being turned into textiles with the help of textile researcher Seher Mirza from the Royal College of Arts. In doing so the divers are raising 92 per cent of a typical month’s fishing income.

GGGI best practice recommendations and fact sheets for the management of gillnets, traps and pots and fishing aggregate devices can be found online.

More information

Ghost Gear