Ghost Fishing Haunts Ocean Ecosystems

In September 2014, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published a new study on a dangerous phenomenon known as “ghost fishing.” Ghost fishing occurs when derelict fishing gear, including lost or abandoned nets and traps, continue to ensnare marine life. According to the NOAA study, which focused on traps, thousands of such devices are lost or abandoned in the United States each year, causing the death of fish, crabs, and turtles that get caught in the gear—including some threatened and endangered species. Researchers found that between 5 and 40 percent of all derelict traps showed evidence of ghost fishing for long periods of time. These derelict traps may even have broader and potentially more harmful implications than floating pollutants such as plastic, abandoned vessels, and trash, because they continue to catch both targeted commercial species and non-target species, and can damage seafloor and sensitive habitats such as coral reefs.

The study authors suggested developing a management strategy for derelict fishing traps that includes (1) targeted studies to estimate mortality of fishery stocks; (2) an assessment of the economic impacts of such traps on fisheries; (3) collaboration with the fishing industry to develop solutions to ghost fishing; and (4) an examination of the regional context and challenges resulting in derelict fishing traps to find effective policy solutions to manage, reduce, and prevent gear loss.