A simple piece of technology could prove successful in reducing the amount of fishing gear lost to our oceans, according to a new report.

Lost fishing gear – also known as ‘ghost gear’ – is a major contributor to marine pollution. An estimated 700,000 metric tons of ghost gear enters the world’s oceans every year and, in some studies in specific locations, it has made up as much as 46% of marine plastic pollution.

To try and address that, the Blue Marine Foundation (BLUE) established its SAFEGEAR project to analyse the scale and severity of the problem and develop an AIS beacon– to tackle it.

The project received funding from the Waitrose Plan Plastic grant fund, managed by the environmental charity Hubbub, and its aim is to make the SAFEGEAR beacon available to fishers through grant funding and reduce plastic pollution.

As part of the project, BLUE worked with Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones and Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, from the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit, to assess the scale and cost of abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear.

It also worked with marine specialists to develop a cost-effective sea-hardened beacon that fishers could easily deploy. They also engaged with the Fishing Animateurs, who work closely with fishers’ associations, producer organisations and fishing gear technology experts, to build a knowledge base of gear loss and to consult on the application of SAFEGEAR.

Dan Crockett, Development Director at BLUE, said:

"The small-scale fishing community needs good news stories this year more than ever before and we believe SAFEGEAR could be a powerful and inspiring one. Ghost fishing gear is almost always unintentional and its effects on our marine life are devastating. We are grateful to Waitrose and Hubbub and the Plan Plastic grant for making this trial possible and we aim to continue our work to help fishermen mark their gear.”

Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones working in the labs.
Professor Richard Thompson and Dr Winnie Courtene-Jones working in the University's plastics labs

Professor Thompson, Head of the International Marine Litter Research Unit, said:

“Lost fishing gear can have profound impacts on both the marine environment and the fishing industry. We know from our previous research that fishers are acutely aware of the issue and keen to help try and tackle it.
"As with almost every aspect of marine litter, this report shows that developing innovative solutions together with the people who will use them can result in a win-win for them and our oceans.”

A selection of fishers in the south west of England trialled SAFEGEAR during a typically rough Cornish winter and found that it could stop the vast majority of static fishing gear entering the marine environment.

Not only does this have a positive impact on the marine life, but it also saves time and money for fishers who would otherwise have to spend hours looking for lost gear and bear the financial brunt of replacing it.

Cameron Henry, a Mylor fisherman who had participated in the sea trial of SAFEGEAR, said:

“Smaller pots cost anywhere from £40 a pot, big ones are £100 a pot. If you lose a full string of 30 pots, it’s a lot of money. The main problem for us isn’t just the money side of it, but that gear is at the bottom of the seabed and it’s not very good for the ecosystem.”


The Queen's Anniversary Prize for pioneering research on marine microplastics pollution and its impact on the environment and changing behaviour

Nearly two decades of world-leading research into the effects of marine plastics on our environment by Plymouth researchers, led by Professor Richard Thompson OBE FRS, has received the highest honour that can be bestowed upon a higher education institution.

Recognition for our discovery of microplastics

Toxic plastic waste floating under the surface of the ocean and contaminating water, pollution and environmental damage.