Some fishing crews in the Atlantic Ocean were hauling up a different kind of catch in 2020: more than 63 tonnes of discarded fishing gear, a major source of marine pollution.
The effort is part of a new government project aiming to solve the issue of so-called “ghost gear,” the term given to traps, nets, buoys and other fishing gear that get lost or discarded in the process of fishing, and remain drifting in the ocean. Ghost gear can destroy habitats and sea life, and may make up as much as 70 per cent of macro-plastics in the ocean, according to Fisheries and Oceans Canada.
Along this continent’s East Coast, a combination of ship strikes and ghost gear have decimated the North Atlantic right whale. In Canadian waters alone, entanglements in ghost gear have cut the endangered species’ number to just 400.
For years, Ottawa struggled with the problem in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.
Stopping any gear from being abandoned in the ocean in the first place is difficult due to the unpredictable nature of fishing itself, where accidents and mistakes can occur.
“We have about 226 shellfish farms [that] have been operating for many years and over the course of these years, inevitably, debris has gone over the sides,” Jim Russell, with the B.C. Shellfish Growers Association, told CTV News.
To help with the problem, the federal government launched a program to focus on retrieving the ghost gear out of the water by paying fishing crews to hunt it down.
Off the Nova Scotian coast, five vessels hoisted a mountain of material across 60 trips in 2020. In total, it was more than the weight of 11 elephants, according to Bernadette Jordan, the minister of Fisheries, Oceans, and the Canadian Coast Guard.
Crews found around 3,200 metres of rope, but the majority of the discovered gear consisted of traps and pots used in lobster and crab harvesting.
“This is a special project because captains have identified this to be an issue for a longtime,” Alexa Goodman, Coastal and Marine Project coordinator with Coastal Action N.S., told CTVNews.ca
Coastal Action is one of the organizations the government is partnering with for the Ghost Gear Fund, a fund set up to support 26 different projects between 2020 and 2022, all aimed at retrieving the abandoned equipment, recycling it or investing in new technology to prevent it.
Coastal Action alone removed five tonnes of debris in 2020, Goodman said.
“Five hundred kilograms of that was rope and one-thousand five hundred kilograms of that was steel cable,” she added.
They operated off of the south shore of Nova Scotia starting July 2020 in several high-traffic lobster fishing areas, and will continue working to end ghost gear there until March 2022. Apart from planning retrieval days, they are aiming to divert around 2,000 lobster traps and 22 tonnes of rope away from disposal methods considered “high-impact”.
Coastal Action has already disposed of much of the gear it retrieved, but the group returned anything with identification that was still useable to its owners.
“Some unique solutions have also been formed where some of the traps have been repurposed for building materials,” Goodman said.
Shoreline cleanups are part of the program as well.
So far, the program is focused in the Atlantic Ocean, but officials say it will be coming to British Columbia and the Pacific Ocean in 2021.
The hope is projects like these will help the survival of species at risk, like the Atlantic right whale, as well as the coastal communities that depend on healthy oceans and all they offer.