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Ghost Gear Busters: Paying Fishers to Collect Derelict Nets, Traps

Abandoned fishing gear kills millions of marine animals every year. The Fishing for Energy program generates electricity from gear that’s been retrieved from the ocean.

Written by Erica Cirino Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
An endangered loggerhead turtle swims near fishing nets.AFP/NOAA

When fishers drop their gear into the ocean, they do so with the intention of bringing it back up – hopefully with a big catch inside. But in many cases, fishing lines, traps and nets get lost, broken or snagged on the seafloor, where this “ghost gear” continues ensnaring marine life for years.

An estimated 640,000 metric tons of fishing gear is abandoned annually, killing millions of marine animals, including whales, sea turtles, seabirds and seals, as well as creating navigation hazards. One solution: a private–public partnership called Fishing for Energy that pays fishers to collect ghost gear, which is then recycled or incinerated to generate electricity.

“The Fishing for Energy partnership is a great opportunity to work collectively with fishing communities around the country to prevent fishing gear from potentially becoming derelict,” said Keith Cialino, northeast regional coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program, which is a Fishing for Energy partner. “To date, the program has diverted over 3 million pounds of gear.”

Fishing for Energy also develops new gear technology to prevent nontarget species from being entrapped, educates local citizens about the problem of derelict fishing gear and installs collection bins where fishers can drop off unusable gear for disposal, free of charge. The program currently serves 44 ports in 10 U.S. states and has engaged more than a thousand fishers.

Fishing for Energy partners include the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, which, like NOAA, helps fund the program; Covanta Energy, which generates electricity from burning the gear; and Schnitzer Steel, which recycles the collected gear. Fishing for Energy so far has issued $1.3 million in grants to coastal cities to participate in the program.

One recent participant is the Barnegat Bay, New Jersey, region where the New Jersey Conserve Wildlife Foundation educates the public and works with local fishers and universities to collect derelict gear. Each winter, local fishers hop into their boats and use sonar to find abandoned nets, traps and pots, which they snag with a grapple hook or gaff.

The focus is on crab traps, which catch and kill nontarget marine life. Like many types of fishing gear, most crab traps are not equipped with “bycatch reduction devices” – escape hatches that allow species that are larger or smaller than the targeted crabs to avoid getting trapped. Some studies estimate that up to 40 percent of the world’s fishing catch – 63 billion pounds each year – consists of marine species that fishers were not trying to hook.

David Wheeler, executive director of the New Jersey Conserve Wildlife Foundation, said an estimated 500 diamondback terrapins are caught and killed by derelict crab traps in Barnegat Bay each day. The turtles are a species of special concern in New Jersey and several other Atlantic states, as their numbers have decreased in recent years – in no small part because they keep getting unintentionally caught and killed in crab traps.

The program pays Barnegat Bay fishers between $32 and $48 per hour for their time removing derelict traps from the water. But some say participating in the program is worth much more than the money they earn hauling gear.

“I grew up off the bay and over the years I have seen things change a lot – for the worse,” said Jeff Silady, a former commercial tuna and lobster fisherman now working for ReClam the Bay, a nonprofit focused on restocking the Barnegat Bay ecosystem with clams and oysters. “Fish stocks have gone down – from overfishing, pollution, development and bycatch – so I decided it was time to make a change and give back for future generations. Removing old gear helps make the bay a healthier place – and it’s pretty fun.”

Indeed, research shows that removing gear improves ecosystem health by preventing marine animal deaths, which in turn boosts local economies that rely on revenue from fishing and recreation.

Once derelict gear is retrieved from the ocean, Schnitzer Steel collects, shreds and sorts it – recycling any metal and breaking down what will be shipped to Covanta for incineration. While burning fishing gear – much of which is wood and plastic – emits greenhouse gases and sometimes other toxins – Covanta contends that incineration is the most ecologically responsible disposal method.

“The material has good BTU [British thermal unit] value that can be recovered rather than wasted by being disposed of in a landfill,” said Margaretta Morris, vice president of materials management and community affairs at Covanta Energy. She noted that algae and seaweed that stick to traps and nets, combined with organic materials found on fishing gear, can generate methane, a greenhouse gas more than 30 times as potent as carbon dioxide.

In the early 2000s, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to participate in Fishing for Energy, known locally as Nets to Energy. Nonprofits such as the Hawaii Wildlife Fund collect enormous quantities of derelict gear that washes up on beaches after it is spun around the North Pacific Gyre, otherwise known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. With the archipelago’s landfills stuffed to capacity, the state began incinerating trash at a facility on Oahu to generate electricity.

“In 2003 there were limited options for disposal: reuse or landfill,” said Megan Lamson, vice president of the Hawaii Wildlife Fund. “Nets that couldn’t be reused as cargo nets to cover pickups, art projects or farming/gardening activities would all be sent to the county landfill. The Nets to Energy program gave us another option for such nets in a win-win that allowed for energy production and saving some space in our bulging landfills.”

Fishing for Energy recently partnered with a shipping company to transport derelict nets collected in Alaska to Seattle for incineration, and is sending some nets to Denmark to be repurposed as rugs, according to Cialino.

“Derelict fishing gear is something that today is not on the typical person’s radar,” said Wheeler. “If we’re able to meet commercial fishers and crabbers, and also recreational folks who go to these seaside towns for the summer, we could reduce gear loss and improve gear recovery – making the oceans cleaner, safer and more productive for everyone.”

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