An exit strategy for ghost fishing

I remember Paul Dayton passionately talking about ghost fishing at the Benthic Ecology Meeting about 15 years ago.  I still don’t know whether in some places it is such a big problem that it is impacting species and ecosystems.  Regardless, it is wasteful and morally abhorrent, if very difficult to eliminate.

Ghost fishing is the term used for lost or abandoned fishing gear that continues to catch fish. It is environmentally detrimental and the fish caught is wasted. The issue of “ghost fishing” was first brought to the attention of world at the 16th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries in April 1985. Following debate at COFI, the FAO Secretariat published an in-depth study of the problem.

Ghost fishing normally occurs with passive fishing gear such as longlines, gill nets, entangling nets, trammel nets, traps and pots, etc. as opposed to active fishing gear such as trawls and seines. The catching process of active fishing gear generally ceases when the gear is no longer attached to the vessel. However, any type of lost or abandoned fishing gear on the surface is a danger to passing vessels by becoming entangled in the propeller and disabling the vessel, particularly in bad weather. Fishing vessels are especially at risk because the lost fishing gear may be brought to the surface if entangled in the vessel’s own fishing gear. – from the FAO

Abel Valdivia came across this ghost trap while working off Abaco Island this summer.  He released the fish that were still alive and removed a dead snapper which created a nice feeding frenzy!  (we took Helen Scales to this reef a few weeks later)


Now a team of scientists at UW have announced the results of their work on the effectiveness of biodegradable panels, that are designed to allow fish and other critters that get caught, to escape if the trap is lost and not being monitored by the fisherman.

In a study published in Conservation Biology, researchers developed an oval panel for fishery pots that would eventually degrade, leaving an opening for animals to squeeze through. “[O]nce the panel dissolves, anything that can enter the pot can also escape,” the authors write. To make sure the pots still worked for their original purpose, blue crab fishers in Virginia tested the redesigned pots alongside their usual pots. The two sets of pots caught about the same number of crabs, suggesting that the panels didn’t affect fishing performance. The crabs’ sizes were also similar.

Source: Bilkovic, D.M. et al. 2012. Use of fully biodegradable panels to reduce derelict pot threats to marine fauna. Conservation Biology doi: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2012.01939.x.


One Response to “An exit strategy for ghost fishing”

  1. Biodegradable release doors have been used on Gulf of Maine libster traps for over a decade now. They’re mandatory on the 3+ million pots that are licensed every year! I am very surprised not to see any wisp of knowledge if this here. There are mounds of lobster scientists in my backyard that have long-term experience with bio pots, their pros and cons. One big con is that pots often sustain warping/damage that keeps the bio door from releasing. Or drom leaving an opening big enough to escape from. But the doors do release at least sometimes. I have a big tub full of ones that have washed up.

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