Ghost Gear Retrieval Program

It was fishermen in Saint John Harbour, an industrial port in southwestern New Brunswick, Canada in the Bay of Fundy, who first dreamt up the ghost gear project in 2005. They had been regularly losing lobster traps to commercial ship traffic for decades, ships and tugboats would sail over lobster traps and either cut off the buoys or drag the traps off course. Not only this; the fishermen’s active traps (the traps they were fishing during the lobster season) were also getting snarled on older traps that had been lost. The entanglements of their active gear in the lost traps was causing the endlines (line in the water attaching the trap to the buoy) they were fishing to break, and they would lose the active traps they were fishing. This was a costly problem and twofold; not only were they losing the trap and therefore having replacement costs to purchase more gear, but they were also losing revenue from the lost value of the lobsters from the traps they didn’t get back. 

 

At the time there was an ongoing development project in Saint John Harbour where developers were required to fund habitat restoration work. The harbour fishermen approached Fundy North to develop a project under this funding opportunity and from there, we presented a plan for ghost gear retrieval. Initially, the motivation was to retrieve fishermen’s property to prevent replacement costs. But as the proposal developed, it quickly became apparent that ghost gear had an impact on the environment as well. Lost fishing gear often continues to fish as marine life can get trapped, eventually die, and become bait for other animals, hence the term “ghost fishing”. Ghost gear can also cause entanglements of marine mammals such as whales, leading to injury or death, and the decomposition of modern synthetic fishing gear at sea releases toxins which can enter the food chain and cause additional impacts on marine life. Therefore, the ghost gear retrieval project became an important environmental project with clear economic benefits as well. 

 

Three years after the fishermen first brought up the idea, Fundy North Fishermen’s Association began a project in 2008 to identify and retrieve ghost gear from the Bay of Fundy. Since then, after years of project work, we have developed and headed the Fundy North Ghost Gear Retrieval Program to target the retrieval of derelict ghost gear in LFA 36. Over the past two decades our fishermen have gone from identifying the need for mitigating ghost gear and developing specialized grapnels for removing ghost gear from different depths and conditions at sea, to the successful completion of numerous retrieval projects. Up to now, a great deal of ghost gear has been retrieved from the waters of the Bay of Fundy (for up to date information on quantities of gear retrieved, please contact info@fundynorth.org). 

 

As an organization, we are committed to limiting the impact of our fishery on the marine environment. A big part of this for our fishermen is ensuring gear loss is as limited as humanly possible. Of course, sometimes gear loss happens; storms can create conditions for gear to be lost, but many of the other causes are preventable. Lobster traps are lost primarily due to gear conflicts with neighbouring marine industries, and on Canada's East coast the salmon aquaculture industry and commercial shipping industry are most commonly involved in fishing gear conflicts. In addition to retrieving lost gear, FNFA is working closely to engage neighbouring marine industries in dialogue about ghost gear prevention.

 

A number of new rules for vessel traffic were put in place in Saint John Harbour that have significantly reduced gear loss due to ship traffic. Protocols have also been accomplished  with the salmon aquaculture industry in other areas of LFA 36 to develop and establish vessel routes to reduce fishing gear loss. For more information on the Saint John Harbour program, please see below for our ghost gear manual detailing our ghost gear retrieval efforts (up to 2015). 

 

Nowadays Fundy North is expanding educational campaigns aimed at both fishermen and workers in neighbouring marine industries on ways to mitigate gear loss. In our current and future work, we are looking to further identify hot spots for gear loss in LFA 36, refine our grapnel design to target more diverse habitats for retrieval, and expand our work towards ghost gear prevention and repuposing old gear.

 

The program priorities have also expanded since the program first began. We have expanded our mandate under the GGRP with an emphasis on expanding the capacity, opportunity, and access to recycle/repurpose fishing gear in southwest NB; specifically rope and lobster traps from Region 4 of New Brunswick and the LFA 36 lobster fishing district. This way, we are beginning to address the existing gap around responsible disposal. 

 

Recently under our Ghost Gear Retrieval Program, Fundy North has been collaborating with Point Lepreau Nuclear Generating Station (PLNGS) who are supporting retrieval initiatives around Point Lepreau for a period of 5 years between 2020 and 2025. Our Ghost Gear Retrieval Program has also received support from various federal departments or agencies to carry out the retrieval activities in the region, as well as corresponding disposal activities. 


What we have learned over the years is that ongoing efforts to mitigate and prevent ghost gear are needed. It’s hard work that requires specialized skills to learn how to operate the grapnels and can be dangerous. We wish to thank our participating harvesters for their interest and investment in this program as so often they volunteer their time and resources to support this work. Donations from the public are also welcome and appreciated. All proceeds go directly to supporting program activities. If you wish to contribute, you can do so by contacting us at info@fundynorth.org.