A Phantom Menace: Ghost gear haunting our seas


This month, World Animal Protection is hosting our inaugural meeting of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative in Slovenia.

Around 640,000 tonnes of new ghost fishing gear is lost or discarded in our oceans every year

What is ghost gear?

Ghost gear is a term for lost and abandoned fishing nets and equipment that circles the seas entangling precious marine life.  

Made of nylon and plastic, ghost gear takes centuries to break down and can drift in the ocean for many years trapping, injuring and killing marine animals with turtles, seals, whales, sharks and seabirds high in the death toll. We’ve estimated that 136,000 seals and whales are trapped every year.

The problem is massive. Globally, around 640,000 tonnes of new ghost fishing gear is lost or discarded in our oceans every year[1]. That’s more than the weight of twelve Titanics!

Australia has the misfortune to be home to a ghost gear hotspot in the Gulf of Carpentaria in Northern Australia. Over 2,400 tonnes of ghost gear drifts into the Gulf each year, the equivalent of 120 semi-trailer cabs.[2] This is higher than any other area in Oceania and Southeast Asia.  Disturbingly, the CSIRO has estimated that 5,000 to 15,000 turtles have been caught in the nets washed up on Gulf of Carpentaria beaches in the past decade[3].

Where is the ghost gear drifting into the Gulf coming from? 

While half the nets can’t be identified by their source country, research shows just 4 per cent are from Australian sources. The rest come from countries such as Taiwan, Indonesia, Korea, Japan and Thailand, and includes mostly trawl, gillnets and long line fishing gear which can be many kilometres long.[4]

What causes the ghost gear?

The causes are both accidental as well as deliberate. Severe storms mean gear can be lost overboard or it gets caught up on reefs and rocks on the seafloor.

Sometimes for less expensive gear types, it will be easier and cheaper to throw the gear overboard than taking it and repairing it on shore. Often gear recovery is too difficult.

At other times gear becomes entangled with other fishing nets when fisheries are crowded and poorly managed. There is also the serious problem of illegal fishing.

What is World Animal Protection doing?

World Animal Protection is convening a group of organisations and businesses with the power to help solve this problem worldwide.  Called the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, our aim is to achieve worldwide collaboration and cooperation to prevent and recover ghost gear.

The Initiative will include an online data hub for people to record what they find in the oceans and washed up on the beaches, a place for sharing intelligence and finding practical solutions that have worked in other fisheries such net recycling schemes and tagging nets with tracking devices.

The Initiative kicks off on 13-14 November in Slovenia with a roundtable of government, industry, and inter-governmental bodies such as the United National Environment Program (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).

Read more about our Sea Change campaign here.

[1] Macfadyen et al (2009) “Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear” in UNEP regional sea’s report and studies 1985; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper, No 523, Rome, pp 1;11.

[2]Kiessling, I (2003) “Finding solutions: derelict fishing gear and other marine debris in Northern Australia. Report prepared for the National Oceans Office for the Key Centre for Tropical Wildlife Management, Darwin, Australia: Charles Darwin University, p 10.

[3] Wilcox, C., Heathcote, G., Goldberg, L., Gunn, R., Peel, D. & Hardesty, B.D. (2014). Understanding the sources, drivers and impacts of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear in northern Australia. Conservation Biology DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12355.

[4] Gunn et al (2010) “Tackling ‘ghost nets’: Local solutions to a global issue in northern Australia”: in Ecological Management & Restoration, Vol 11, No 2 August.