Can Technology Help Clean Up the Oceans?

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In recent years the double whammy
of plastic trash and overfishing has
drawn more attention to the plight
of the world’s oceans. But another
problem is that too many fishing
vessels dump their gear, mostly
fishing nets, which then endanger
marine life long after they return to
shore. This “ghost gear” will remain
in the waters for centuries, causing
“ghost fishing” that kills even more
marine life. Technology, such as
improved GPS mapping of the ocean
floor, could help make a difference
the needless killing of fish and sea
mammals.
To that end, over forty delegates
recently convened in Slovenia to
launch the new Global Ghost Gear
Initiative (GGGI). Bringing together
NGOs, industry leaders and
intergovernmental organizations,
GGGI’s aim is to save one million
marine animals by 2018. The cost in
money and resources is too large to
ignore: United Kingdom-based
World Animal Protection estimates
640,000 tons of fishing gear, mostly
plastic or nylon, are pitched into
oceans annually. Just one ghost net
can kill $20,000 of Dungeness crab
over 10 years.

The results are lost economic
opportunity and more destruction
as unwanted nets, traps and pots
harm and kill marine life. NGOs are
dedicated to cleaning up the oceans
of this killer trash, and some
companies are collecting this
garbage and recycling it into new
products—but they are fighting a
losing battle. The complex problem
of ghost gear has many moving
parts—and more cooperation is
needed.
Delegates at last month’s meeting
agreed that at first, the GGGI must
have solid and reliable evidence
and data to start raising awareness.

That may sound like a dry and
tepid response to a pressing
environmental and economic
problem, but in order to create a
sense of urgency, reliable
information is urgently needed.
Many estimates of ghost gear in the
oceans, along with statistics
covering wildlife killed annually,
are based on samples taken in a
few spots around the word.
Business and governments,
however, will want more concrete
information before they commit
resources to fight this continuing
problem.
Likewise, the question of how to
solve the ghost gear crisis depends
on how GGGI will conduct outreach,
and who it will hold accountable.
The common perception is that

fishermen simply create this
problem by dumping unwanted
equipment into the water. The
truth, however, is much more
nuanced. Tonny Wagey, an
Indonesian government marine
scientist, offered his perspective as
GGGI’s inaugural meeting
concluded.
“Environmentally and politically,
the problem is the lack of
understanding, awareness and
political will to deal with this,” said
Wagey. “The main culprit is illegal
fishing. After all, the local and
small fishermen don’t want to lose
their nets because the replacement
cost is two or three months of their
wages. It’s the big companies that
are often responsible, especially
those who are coming from outside
our country to fish illegally.”
Wagey’s perspective is one coming
from Indonesia, the world’s fourth
largest seafood producer with about
4.8 million tons caught, processed
and sold annually. Hence one risk
GGGI confronts is the developed vs.
developing nations schism that
affects many an international
organization across all sectors.
Considering the fact emerging
economies such as Indonesia and
Thailand are among the world’s
biggest fishing producers, the
challenge GGGI will find is scoring
cooperation from stakeholders
across all countries.
What countries all need is an
improved visibility of the ocean
floor. The Boston Globe has profiled
the troubled New England lobster
industry, which has been long
frustrated by current technology’s
inability to locate ghost gear off the
northeastern U.S.’s coast. In
Indonesia, a boat could be
continuing its daily routine, only to
graze a reef or rock outcropping no
one knew about, even if that
knowledgeable fisherman followed
generations before him into this
line of work. The world’s large
fishing companies should take on
the responsibility of developing and
researching better technology that
in the long run, will help sustain
the global fishing industry and
keep it profitable.

Businesses cannot ignore the
mounting size of this crisis and
stand by while a few do their part
to tackle the problems of ghost
gear. One of them is Aquafil, a
manufacturer of recycled carpet
and textile fibers and one of the
event’s sponsors. The company’s
representatives gave me a tour of
one of its warehouses. About a 45
minute drive from Ljubljana is a
renovated cotton mill bursting with
nets gathered from around the
world. Bales of used and discarded
fishing nets, each weighing four
metric tons, offered a disheartening
visual that reminded me of the
daunting statistics I heard over the
previous 36 hours.
Some good first steps were
proposed during this inaugural
GGGI meeting. For example, color-
coding nets for easy identification
could be a way to identify wayward
fishing companies. Tagging nets to
identify these giant nets more
easily is another option.
Aggressive
education programs also must be
part of this equation. Better design
always leads to more sustainable
solutions, which leads to technology:
maps from a service such as Google,
as well as apps, cannot be
overlooked.
In the end, if the commercial
fishing industry becomes more
engaged, GGGI will be off to a fast
start. In an age where a “tell all”
video timely posted online give a
company gigantic headaches, no
business wants to be embarrassed—
or lose loyalty from customers who
over time have become more
interested in how their food is
sourced. The time to start
addressing this problem, sadly, was
yesterday: but based on the
cooperation and ideas I saw coming
out of Slovenia, GGGI is on a fast
track to solve a problem that will
only complicate matters in a
growing, and hungrier, world.
Leon Kaye has written for The
Guardian, Triple Pundit, Sustainable
Brands, Clean Technica, Earth 911,
and Inhabitat. He also writes about
his thoughts on sustainability on his
own site, greengopost.com.

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