Ghost nets are a multidimensional threat

by Thomas Jensen

Norway has a long history of policies to reduce the loss of nets at sea

This article was featured in Eurofish Magazine 2 2023.

Plastic marine litter is not a new challenge, but one that has become increasingly serious all over the world. Although great attention has been given to marine litter, there is a broad consensus that the predominant proportion of marine litter is not really visible, as it has sunk beneath the surface. It is alarming, as plastic in the oceans will in time breakdown into very small fragments (micro- and nanoplastics) that pollute marine waters and marine life.

Abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear creates twin problems. Not only does it add to the volume of these plastic particles in the water over time, but until it does, it “ghost fishes”, catching and killing fish and other marine organisms.

Ghost nets can not only promote the spread of invasive alien ­species and harmful microalgae by providing a micro-environment for them to travel to sites where they can cause habitat degradation—but nets can also ­accumulate more marine litter, that may lead to the smothering of benthic communities, ­entanglement of boats, loss of fishing gear, and can generate other negative coastal socioeconomic impacts.

Lack of quantification of ghost gear makes it harder to deal with

Lost gear can come from both professional and recreational fishers, and from the sea-based aquaculture industry as well. It is very difficult even to estimate the scope of the problem, as no science-based knowledge exists on the actual amount of lost plastic fishing gear.

By now the whole world is familiar with the problem of plastic pollution in marine waters and the impacts of ghost fishing as well. Several information and awareness-raising campaigns are trying to draw attention to the issue, but they can only provide limited advice on how to eliminate or mitigate the problem. Clean-up campaigns are sometimes organized with the help of divers and ­volunteers, whose abilities to remove abandoned fishing gear are limited to areas close to the shore and not deeper than 40 m. Professional and regularly organized clean-up campaigns, where vessels are used to retrieve lost fishing gear, are rare as they are expensive and need planning and organization (e.g. to identify gear hubs where lost or abandoned fishing gear tend to accumulate due to underwater currents, announce closures, secure proper vessels for the task etc.).

Norway has been working on the retrieval and reuse of lost fishing gear for more than 40 years. This makes Norway ahead of most other countries in this respect. With a number of mechanisms established for gear retrieval and the mitigation of ghost ­fishing covering the whole life cycle of gear, from production to final deposition or recycling, ­Norway has taken a lead in the fight against this scourge. In Norway it is compulsory to mark fishing equipment for owner identification. When a fishing gear is lost, fishers are obliged to report it within 24 hours to the coast guard. A clean-up is organized each year by the Norwegian Directorate of Fisheries. If the gear is found, it will be given back to the owner. If it was not reported, the owner will be fined and the gear confiscated. The regulation applies not only to fishers, but relevant authorities are also entrusted to follow up on reported losses, impose penalties and implement yearly clean-ups. It also requires the involvement and cooperation of ports and port services to store and transport end-of-life fishing gear brought ashore.

Measures at different levels work to reduce the risk of ghost fishing

To reduce the risk of ghost-fishing for crab fishers, for example, it is mandatory to use traps and pots for lobsters and common crabs that have an escape opening closed with a cotton rope, which is a biodegradable material. The fishers are also legally obliged to mark the pots with an owner registration mark as well. These are regulated under the “harvesting regulations” of the “regulations on the implementation of ­fishing, catching, and harvesting wild marine resources”.

Norway has also taken a big step forward regarding reporting lost fishing gear. One of the systems, BarentsWatch is an open information system which collects and shares information about Norwegian coastal and marine areas. The system provides up-to-date information on the location of fixed gears. When BarentsWatch was introduced, fishers were reluctant to report the location of their gear. Today it is considered to be a useful and important tool by most, as it provides information on waves, polar weather, fish health, the location of fixed gears to avoid accidentally being run over by vessels, and the location of fishing vessels to all users. The tool also reduces the possibility that fishing gear, or a part of the gear, is lost. The operation of the system requires a high level of trust both among fishers and the government.


Norway recognizes the role of reuse and recirculation in the life-cycle of any material. Various policies, definitions, and concepts exist in the field of fishing industry and waste management to regulate the area. As part of the European Economic Area, Norway is bound by European rules and regulations as well. The Waste Framework Directive (2008/98/EC) is the legislative framework of the European Union defining relevant terms and principles together with terminology regarding waste, concepts, and principles, like extended producer responsibility (EPR), waste ­hierarchy, and the polluter pays principle. Waste hierarchy is the waste management program of the EU, which aims to prevent waste occurrence and tries to minimize disposal at landfills. Norway follows the recommendations of the EU and complies with the European Union’s Single-Use Plastics Directive, that focuses on the reduction of plastic pollution from single use plastic products. The EU Directive aims to collect 90% of plastic bottles by 2029, a goal Norway has already met. By 2025, together with the EU, Norway plans to establish extended producer responsibility schemes for fishing gear that contains plastic and is used in the commercial fishing and aquaculture sector.

Ports have an important role to play

Port facilities and services, if carefully planned and performed, can be important supporters of waste collection and management. The Directive on Port Facility for Ships (EU2019/883) is about waste ­management at shipping harbours, and cost allocation with a focus on reducing marine litter. The cost of delivering derelict fishing gear and caught marine waste at harbours should not be added to harbour dues of the vessel retrieving the lost gear, not to discourage fishers to land collected waste at ports. It is more equitable and efficient to include it in general costs as an indirect fee. This directive is currently in the process of being implemented in Norway.

In 2019, Norway joined the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), which also participates in GloLitter. The GGGI is a global platform where governments, seafood companies and NGOs can cooperate to develop knowledge and methods to prevent and reduce lost fishing gear and ghost fishing. GloLitter is a project between the Government of Norway, the International Maritime Organization and FAO. Norway contributes with funding to projects under the GGGI.

To combat the marine plastic litter even further, Norway is also a member of the Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR1). OSPAR aims to enhance collaboration among 15 governments and the EU for a clean, healthy, and biologically diverse North-East Atlantic, that is used sustainably. Norway has also initiated the program “Fishing for Litter”. The program was established as a national test scheme in 2016-2017, with twenty vessels and three participating harbours. Then in 2020, the program operated with 101 vessels, 11 ports and managed to remove 208 tonnes of waste, of which 55 tonnes was delivered for recycling via Nofir2.

Norway signed the agreement on global plastics in Nairobi in March 2022, with specific legally binding provisions and obligations to prevent and remediate plastic pollution and its toxic impacts. This was a major leap towards a plastic free ocean for all, as the resolution addresses the full lifecycle of plastic, including production, design and disposal as well. Currently, the framework is endorsed by 175 countries of the UN and the work is negotiated throughout a series of meetings across the globe and is expected to be in place by the end of 2024.

Despite the efforts made, much remains to be done

Even though the international, national and regional legislative instruments implemented by Norway clearly aim to prohibit the discharge of wastes, setting inspection regimes and imposing ­sanctions, a number of gaps, uncertainties and overlaps with other legislative mechanisms hamper the efficiency of such instruments. Sometimes weak inspection and implementation of the relevant regulations contributes to limited success. Obstacles include availability and use of port reception facilities for ship-generated waste, obligations for waste management, and the reporting and enforcement regimes. Insufficient data ­availability on the status of marine litter in the oceans, as well as the current knowledge on the quantities, degradation, and data on the impacts of marine litter are scarce. It is estimated by the European Union that around 20% of fishing gear used every year is lost, i.e. around 11,000 tonnes per year. On a global scale, it is believed that nearly 2% of all fishing gear, comprising 2,963 km2 of gillnets, 75,049 km2 of purse seine nets, 218 km2 of trawl nets, 739,583 km of longline mainlines, and more than 25 million pots and traps are lost to the ocean annually. To increase data certainty, it is recommended to map the distribution and composition of litter on a yearly basis and collaborate with the oil industry to increase data on marine litter on the seafloor. Data on the amount of retrieved fishing gear and recycled/reused ones as compared to the amount of lost gear is very scarce and fragmented, and not comparable with reports on lost gears due to the use of different units of measure.

Recycling and reuse of fishing gear is a relatively new focus area in the plastics recycling/reuse industry. Nets used as input are collected either from “fishing for litter” campaigns, or from nets properly deposited at port receptacles. In Norway, nets are collected through by Nofir, and are then sent to Lithuania for dismantling and finally, depending on the material type, are directed to facilities in the EU and Asia for recycling. Even though the system is ongoing, there are still many challenges. Some of these are the collection and amount of available fishing gear (transporters and further users require information on the available amounts and “quality status” of collected gear within a specific period to plan and organize activities), lack of a centralized information collection from ports, and a high demand of costly human labour at cleaning and selecting various gear materials. Moreover, the cost of energy and resources necessary to recycle fishnets and other marine equipment may be more than the financial ­benefit of recycling, while transportation between different sites of the value chain only adds to the costs. On the other hand, relying on cheap labour partnerships can influence long-term sustainability. For example, long transport routes can unexpectedly be blocked due to a pandemic or an increase in fuel prices; partners suddenly increase their charges; or there could be a change in the political situation to the detriment of the partnership. The need for more training and education on problems related to losses of fishing gear is also an issue that needs further action and improvement. Thus, even though recycling/reuse is a priority, there are still many technical, economical, and infrastructural barriers that must be overcome to improve success and increase awareness and participation.

Despite all the difficulties and challenges, and the need for further improvement, Norway is one of the most successful countries when the management of abandoned and end-of-life fishing gear is considered. Sharing knowledge of successful approaches as well as working together towards more sustainable fisheries would be beneficial for all countries, as the problem is shared. United efforts would lead to more inclusive and permanent solutions with smaller investment of time, budget and energy from individual regions and countries.

Eva Kovacs, & Christian P. Unmack,, Eurofish

You may also like