By Surfrider Pacific Rim Marketing and Media Lead Jordan Dyck

There’s a little-known pollutant impacting oceans worldwide, including the coast surrounding the community we call home. Ghost gear.  Ghost gear refers to fishing gear that has been lost or abandoned from fisheries. Last year, the United Nations Environment Programme estimated that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost each year. Globally, that’s resulted in the deaths of more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles annually. The animals get trapped, tangled, and suffocated in lost gear, often leading them to an extremely slow and painful death.

In an interview with CTVNews.ca, Josey Kitson, executive director of World Animal Protection Canada stated “Once the gear becomes detached, it continues to do what it is made to do. Which is to fish, and as a result of that, it’s incredibly harmful to marine animals.”

Our community is dependent on what the ocean provides us. As a massive tourist hub on Vancouver Island, the whale watching and fishing operations support in sustaining our economy. As locals, we’re fortunate enough to surf with sea lions, to watch the salmon run in the rivers, and to bask in the beauty of what the ocean provides us. If ghost gear continues to be left in our oceans, we risk damaging or eradicating the oceanic ecosystems we love so much.

One of the biggest problems with mitigating ghost gear is that it’s incredibly hard to track. It has no boundaries, and with the majority of ghost gear being made of plastic, it can find a permanent home in our waters.

What is ghost gear made of?

Ghost gear consists of a variety of different fishing material including but not limited to lost fishing nets, long lines, fish traps, and lobster pots. Abandoned nets can be as big as football fields. If anyone has been fortunate enough to see the humpbacks, grey whales, and orcas that swim in our waters – you can imagine how easy it could be for one of these marine animals to get tangled in a net that size.

The majority of ghost gear is plastic-based, which can take up to 600 years to break down depending on the plastic’s composition. As this plastic breaks down, it degrades. That degrading plastic is otherwise known as microplastic. On the coastline that surrounds Tofino and Ucluelet, you can see and find pieces of this plastic washed up on our shoreline. If you’ve attended a Surfrider Remote Beach Clean, chances are you’ll find tangled rope deep into the beaches, nearly impossible to remove without our team of volunteers digging for hours to remove pieces of it at a time. Ghost gear doesn’t just harm marine animals in our waters, it ends up on the beaches. It can impact the wolves who roam the forests and bears feeding on salmon in the rivers.

A hard-to-see battle

At Surfrider, we have a massive focus on beach cleans, as well as various other programs and campaigns based in our communities. Debris on beaches is easy to spot. Take a walk on any beach in our community, and you will find microplastic or plastic pollution. Ghost gear is harder to locate, and harder to remember. Public awareness is key to spreading this message across our communities and beyond. Surfrider is proud of the progress of our communities, locals, and tourists to combat single-use plastics in our environment. Ghost gear is another cause that deserves our attention. The damage that causes by ghost gear is far less known than single-use plastic. The effects on ghost gear aren’t visible in our day-to-day. Instead, they affect us in our deep oceanic waters. This is why we need to talk about this and support the organizations that are combating ghost gear pollution.

In Canada, organizations like the Global Ghost Gear Initiative are using their education, resources, and support of talented staff members and volunteers to eradicate ghost gear in our waters. These initiatives bring together communities to tackle the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear.

We are excited to be hosting a clean up this month with British Columbia based Emerald Sea Protection Society, a not for profit organization based in BC, Canada. The organization is made up of a group of professional divers and scientists working together to innovate around the issue of abandoned fishing gear and the problems it causes.

How we can do better at removing ghost gear from our oceans

As a community, we need to put practical solutions in place to prevent and minimize the impacts of lost gear in our oceans. The entire fishing supply chain is responsible, from gear manufacturers to port operators. From fisherman to non-profits. We can do better.

There are net recycling programs, gear retrieval, and fishing management policies in place to help support the fishing community in mitigating the risk of lost fishing gear.

  • Using biodegradable fishing pots, and researching innovative designs for your fishing gear.

  • Choose to use nets that are suitable for recycling. Nets made from Nylon 6 (PA6) are easier to recycle than nets made from Polyethylene (PE) or Polypropylene (PP)

  • Recycle your fishing nets. There are companies that turn fishing nets into skateboards, trainers, socks, sunglasses, swimwear, and even carpet tiles! In British Columbia, Steveston Harbour formulated a net recycling program, and collects end-of-life fishing nets to be regenerated into Nylon 6 fibre.

  • Repurpose your fishing nets. Create art, jewellery, or sport nets if you don’t have access to recycling opportunities.

Join Surfrider Pacific Rim and Emerald Sea Society on March 23rd at the 1st Street Dock from 11 am to 2 pm for an underwater clean up of debris and ghost gear! The Ucluelet Aquarium will have an area for removing marine species from the debris that is collected, and there will be an underwater drone, so folks can tune into the action and see below the surface!