A pile of derelict fishing line, nets, traps, and other debris on a beach.

Derelict Fishing Gear

Large debris, such as derelict fishing gear, can cause huge problems for wildlife, the habitats they depend on, and the economy.

What is derelict fishing gear?

Derelict fishing gear is lost and discarded gear that is no longer under the control of a commercial or recreational fisher. It includes lines, nets, pots, traps, floats, and other equipment. Once lost or discarded in the ocean or Great Lakes, gear can continue to trap and kill fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds, also called ghost fishing. Derelict fishing gear can cause other problems as well, including: 

  • Damaging sensitive seafloor habitats, such as coral reefs and seagrass beds,
  • Causing problems for vessels by wrapping around rudders and propellers,
  • Ruining the gear of other fisheries, and
  • Competing with active fishing gear by trapping economically important species. 

Most modern fishing gear is made of long-lasting and/or synthetic materials, such as plastic and metal, that can remain in the environment for many years. Unfortunately, some derelict fishing gear may be discarded directly or intentionally into the ocean and Great Lakes. However, many fishers do not want to lose their gear. It can be cut or caught on other vessels, break away from overuse, or become lost in storms and natural disasters. 

How much derelict fishing gear is in the ocean?

We know derelict fishing gear causes big problems for our ocean, waterways, and Great Lakes, but it can be difficult to know how much is out there. There are many commercial fisheries around the world, as well as recreational fisheries, and it can be challenging to know where a particular piece of gear comes from.

We do know that the problem is widespread. A NOAA-funded study estimated that there are 145,000 derelict crab pots in the Chesapeake Bay, which can continue to kill 3.3 million blue crabs every year. This can take a lot of money away from fishers as the derelict fishing gear competes with active fishing gear for crab, and when their pots are lost they have to buy new ones. It can also impact non-target species, such as fish, turtles, and other endangered and threatened species, that can be trapped and killed in derelict crab pots.

In Hawaii, derelict fishing gear poses a significant problem for wildlife, even in the most remote parts of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (monument), the largest fully protected marine conservation area on the planet. The monument is home to 23 species that are listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, including the threatened Hawaiian green sea turtle, endangered Hawaiian monk seal, and critically endangered Laysan duck. Despite being mostly uninhabited by humans, over 50 metric tons of marine debris, mostly made up of derelict fishing gear, finds its way onto the monument’s shores every year. This can severely impact these already vulnerable species. 

How does the NOAA Marine Debris Program clean up derelict fishing gear?

The NOAA Marine Debris Program funds projects across the country that remove derelict fishing gear and prevent it from entering the ocean and Great Lakes in the first place. Since 2006, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been involved in a major NOAA effort to remove marine debris from the shorelines of the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (monument). Through this project, which began in 1996, over 848 metric tons of derelict fishing gear have been removed from the monument’s shorelines. 

For over ten years, the NOAA Marine Debris Program has been a part of the Fishing for Energy partnership, a collaboration with the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Covanta, and Schnitzer Steel Industries. The goals of the partnership are to provide a free solution for fishers to dispose of old, derelict, or unusable fishing gear, and to reduce the amount of derelict fishing gear in the ocean and Great Lakes. The partnership installs collection bins that provide the fishing community with a free option for disposing of old or unwanted gear, which is then recycled or converted into energy. Fishing for Energy also provides grant funding for projects that find innovative solutions to reduce the loss of gear at sea, reduce the impacts of derelict fishing gear to wildlife and habitats, and build sustainable programs to reduce the impacts of derelict fishing gear on the environment.

The United States formally joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative as a member government in 2020, along with 15 other governments and 85 non-government partners. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative is the leading international partnership working to address the problem of lost and discarded gear. Addressing marine debris, including ghost gear, is a key priority for the United States. By becoming a member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the United States Government, through the Department of State and the NOAA Marine Debris Program, can better support this key international initiative and foster stronger collaboration to reduce derelict fishing gear. 

Marine debris is everyone’s problem, and you can help be part of the solution! Learn how you can help take on derelict fishing gear and other marine debris on our How to Help page.

Last updated Tue, 02/07/2023 - 07:44 am EST