The shady truth about ghost fishing

A researcher’s and local fisherman’s take on the use of wire lobster traps

 Advances in technology have optimised the fishing industry, making it easier to harvest the fish and other seafood that may find their way onto your plate–but at what cost?


For example, the major switch from wooden lobster traps to wire lobster traps, also called pots, revolutionised the lobster fishing industry. These modern pots are built to last longer, hold more lobster, and supposedly fish better. This advancement is beneficial for hungry humans but presents the environment with further challenges, including ghost fishing.


Ghost fishing occurs when fishing gear unintentionally catches marine life. Because the new gear is coated in plastic, it contributes to ocean pollution and degrades slower, which has led to an increase in abandoned, lost, or discarded (ALD) fishing gear. This fishing gear then contributes to ghost fishing by entrapping unsuspecting marine animals which cannot escape such durable material. 


Bob Henneberry, a retired lobster fisherman from Sambro, Nova Scotia, used wooden lobster traps during his long fishing career. Sometimes after large storm events, while retrieving his traps, he would “haul up a rope with just some rocks and wood:” the remnants of his trap.


Compared to the currently used wire traps, the wooden traps do break down faster. Yet, this older design ghost fishes less marine life and releases less plastics into the ocean. Therein lies the trade-off. A wooden, destroyed lobster trap is an inconvenience to a fisherman but can be a lifesaver to many facets of the marine ecosystem.


Alexa Goodman, a recent graduate from Dalhousie University with a Master’s in Marine Management, is researching ghost fishing from lobster traps in Southwest Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy. Goodman and her team set out to retrieve ALD lobster pods. They found that the rogue traps continued to catch commercial-sized lobster and other fish species, including those at risk of becoming endangered or extinct.


It would not be until the escape hatch degrades that these unattended traps would no longer pose a significant ghost fishing threat.


Escape hatches are required by law to be on lobster traps, and they allow smaller marine life to leave the pots while keeping the commercial-sized lobsters contained. Henneberry explains that “you crimp [the escape hatches] on with iron crimps, it’s a plastic piece, and the big lobsters can’t get out.” Because of Henneberry’s experience with lobster traps, he repaired his traps when they were damaged, and he replaced the escape hatches about every year or they would “rust out and the flaps will flap up, and they’ll come off.” Degradable steel rings attach the escape hatch to the trap and are designed to break down within 12 months; meaning that if they are lost, their impact on sea life is relatively short lived.


 Goodman’s team also conducted interviews with fishers and fishery agencies. Discovering that lobster pods are frequently lost, they inquired whether the fishers make efforts to retrieve ALD equipment. Currently, regulations prevent retrieving old and unidentifiable gear under the condition of the fisher’s licence–A fact that has some working in the industry dismayed.


Henneberry remembers that he felt it was an inconvenience when the rule came into effect. Instead of simply retrieving the gear for the other fishers as he came upon it, he would have to “call them on the radio and say ‘I found one of your traps at such position’, and they would come get it.” This increases the likelihood of traps becoming lost and, in turn, joining the ranks of the ghost fishing fleet.


Since wire traps pose heightened environmental threats compared to wooden traps, more consideration into limiting these effects is critical. Goodman suggests legalising gear retrievals and establishing waste management systems to limit ghost fishing from ALD lobster traps.


With the biodiversity crisis on the rise worldwide, it is necessary for us to stop and think about how the advancements in technology that make our lives easier may be impacting the natural world. As we have seen with the push to make other food industries more environmentally sustainable, it is often up to the consumers to demand change and support those in the industry working towards it. Essentially, for those who are concerned about ghost fishing, there is a need to put our money where our mouth is.

One Response

  1. Great article! I didn’t realize it was called “ghost fishing”. Stray fishing gear poses many environmental hazards for marine life. The change in lobster traps has consequences we may not have thought about.

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