Why and Where? Fishing Gear Lost on the BC Coast

Fish harvesters, biologists, and sea creatures can all agree: lost fishing gear is never a good thing. But even the most skilled and seasoned fisherman will end up losing a trap from time to time in an ocean of unpredictable weather and invisible snags below the surface. Our best tool against lost, abandoned, and otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) is understanding how to prevent it. Studying ALDFG along BC’s coast is not only important for managing fisheries regionally, but can also inform management in regions with similar issues, fisheries, management structures, and marine environments.

During Caitie’s master’s degree at the University of Victoria, she collaborated with the T Buck Suzuki Foundation to understand why and where commercial fishing gear is lost along BC’s coast. They used multiple different methods to answer these research questions: 1) why does commercial fishing gear become lost in BC? and 2) where does commercial fishing gear become lost in BC?

Caitie out surveying fishers. Photo by Chelsey Ellis

What’s the big deal when it comes to lost gear?

ALDFG,  or ‘ghost gear’, makes up a large part of the world’s marine plastic pollution, harming marine wildlife, habitats, and fisheries globally (1). One of ALDFG’s most harmful effects is ghost fishing, where marine wildlife continues to become trapped and entangled long after the gear’s initial loss (2). ALDFG also damages marine habitats by scraping, scouring, and smothering the seafloor and habitat forming species such as corals and eelgrass (3,4). These effects can combine to reduce fish populations, therefore diminishing commercial fisheries stocks and revenues globally (2,5,6). Modern fishing gear is primarily made of plastic materials to ensure durability and longevity, therefore ALDFG could last in the ocean indefinitely and cause long-term harm.

Even though commercial fisheries are an important industry on the coast of BC, there have only been a few ALDFG-related studies of the region (7,8,9,10). ALDFG’s effects can vary depending on local and regional fisheries and marine environments, so it is important to study why and where fishing gear becomes lost at multiple scales (global, regional, and local) to thoroughly understand the problem. Identifying common reasons for fishing gear loss can help fishers and management prevent it from becoming lost in the first place. Knowing where fishing gear is often lost can inform fisheries decisions about when and where a commercial fishery can open. This information can inform clean-up and removal efforts. Resources are often limited, and gear retrieval work can be difficult, so it is important to focus removal efforts in areas with the highest chance of having ALDFG.

Lost traps recovered during TBuck gear retrieval program. Photo by Hannah Fiegenbaum


We started by asking the question, why does gear get lost? 

We used three different methods to answer this question, on a global, regional, and local scale: 

1) Check out the research that’s already been done (i.e. a literature review): We dove deep and drew information from scientific research, industry and NGO reports. No stone was left unturned! 

2) Ask a fisher! What’s a study on fishing gear without the fishers? We surveyed BC fishers up and down the coast of Vancouver Island talking about gear loss. This was also a great opportunity to test chai lattes on the Island, (Cafe Guido’s and Island Grind tied for first!). This opportunity allowed us to understand more about fishers’ experiences with gear loss, and how it affects their operations.

3) Consult our statistics program: We created a predictive spatial model of BC’s coast to identify areas with a high probability for gear loss.

All three methods indicated slightly different reasons for commercial fishing gear loss on global, local, and regional scales. Via the literature review, we found that the most important reasons for gear loss globally were interactions with other fishing vessels and their gear, marine weather, and snagging gear on submerged features. The fisher survey indicated that snagging on ground beneath the ocean’s surface and seafloor type were the most important reasons for their gear loss. Additionally, survey participants heavily emphasized that proper gear maintenance practices and knowledge sharing amongst the fleet were vital to preventing gear loss. According to the predictive model, bathymetry, fishing effort, and wind speed played significant roles in ALDFG locations along BC’s coast. While both the survey and the predictive model were focused on BC, differences between gear loss reasons could be due to the fact that fishers were answering the survey questions based on a more localized scale, and the model was picking up on trends more regionally.

Top reasons for lost gear in BC:

1) When gear gets tangled, it gets lost

Gear loss in fishing is influenced by various factors, including fishing effort and vessel interactions (11). When fishing activity is high, more gear is set, increasing the chances of gear loss. Overcrowding in fishing areas can lead to conflicts between different gear types and encourage risk-taking behavior (11). However, according to our local survey participants, on a smaller scale, fishing effort seemed less significant in gear loss. This could be because in BC, Fisheries and Oceans Canada has implemented measures to separate passive gear (e.g trap and longline gear that sit on the seafloor) and active gear types (e.g. bottom trawl gear that is pulled over the seafloor) to prevent conflicts. Fishers are also proactive about avoiding each other's gear, and emphasize the importance of good communication with one another while fishing. It's also worth noting that these issues may vary depending on the fishery and specific area surveyed.

2) Know the area, gear can get snagged on the bottom

Understanding seafloor features and characteristics is key to minimizing gear loss in fishing operations. Rough seafloor types like corals and rocks, as well as bottom obstructions such as logs and shipwrecks, can snag fishing gear and lead to its loss. Unexpected shallow depths (8) or fishing too deep (12) can also cause gear loss. It is crucial for fishers to have access to accurate bottom mapping technology and oceanographic charts to navigate these challenges and reduce gear loss. Regular gear maintenance is equally important to ensure its durability. This is particularly relevant for novice fishers who may have less experience in local fishing grounds.

3) Go fishing when the weather is good

Considering weather and wind patterns is crucial when assessing the risk of gear loss in fishing operations. Bad weather (13), especially strong winds, can result in gear being blown off vessels or moving set gear from its original location. Poorly maintained gear is also susceptible to breakage under weather and wind stress (8). Our research findings highlight the significance of marine weather and wind speed in gear loss. While survey responses varied, line fishers generally expressed greater concern about weather-related gear loss. Planning fishing activities in more favorable weather conditions can help prevent gear loss, depending on the specific fishery and location.

Understanding where gear loss happens, and the importance of combining predictive modelling and local knowledge.

Using both the fisher survey and a predictive model, we examined commercial gear loss along BC's coast at local and regional scales. The survey involved fishers marking on a digital map where they lost their gear and found others' lost gear, creating a map of clusters of lost gear categorized as lines, nets, and traps. This data, combined with ALDFG location data from other sources, was utilized in the predictive model. By analyzing fishing and environmental variables, such as bathymetry, fishing effort, and wind speed, the model identified significant predictors and generated a map of predicted gear loss locations along BC's coast. The survey and model findings largely aligned, indicating that most lost gear occurred within 15 - 20 km from the shore, particularly in the Strait of Georgia, the Queen Charlotte and Johnstone Straits, and the west coast of Vancouver Island. While there were minor discrepancies, likely due to data availability, this research provides valuable insights into the occurrence and distribution of gear loss in specific areas.

Applications of the research

Understanding commercial fishing gear loss requires a multi-faceted approach, considering global, regional, and local perspectives. Engaging fishers in the research and management processes is crucial due to their expertise and firsthand knowledge. The research highlights the need for participatory approaches and fisher involvement at all levels. Fishers can contribute valuable insights, inform policy decisions, and assist in prioritizing research and removal efforts.

Current initiatives allow fishers to obtain licenses for ALDFG retrieval outside their regular fishing season. However, challenges such as adverse weather conditions during the off season and administrative complexities need to be addressed. Each fishery has unique characteristics, necessitating tailored management strategies. For some fisheries, collecting lost gear before the regular season14 or removing gear in-season may be effective, while others may require a dedicated vessel to retrieve lost gear promptly.

Funding is a key concern for ALDFG projects, as many organizations and fishers are willing to participate but lack financial support for expenses. Ensuring accessible reporting systems, such as phone lines or text messages, can enhance the efficiency of lost gear reporting (15). Translating regulations into common fleet languages, like Vietnamese, would also aid comprehension and compliance (15).

Direct engagement with fishers is vital for effective policy development and successful gear loss reduction. Fishers express a strong desire to participate, share experiences, and contribute to preventing gear loss through knowledge sharing and gear maintenance. Incorporating their perspectives and supporting their involvement will enhance the sustainability of BC's fisheries.


Access Caitie's Thesis Here

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Literature Cited:
1. Global Ghost Gear Initiative, 2021. Best Practice Framework for the Management of Fishing Gear [WWW Document]. URL https://www.ghostgear.org/resources (accessed 05.24.22) .

2. Erzini, K., Monteiro, C.C., Ribeiro, J., Santos, M.N., Gaspar, M., Monteiro, P., Borges, T.C., 1997. An experimental study of gill net and trammel net ’ghost fishing; off the Algarve (southern Portugal). Marine Ecology Progress Series, 158.

3. NOAA, 2015. Impact of “ghost fishing” via derelict fishing gear. NOAA Marine Debris Program Report, 25. Charleston, South Carolina, USA.

4. Du Preez, C., Swan, K.D., Curtis, J.M.R., 2020. Cold-water corals and other vulnerable biological structures on a North Pacific seamount after half a century of fishing. Frontiers in Marine Science 7, 17. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2020.00017

5. Gilman, E., 2015. Status of international monitoring and management of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear and ghost fishing. Marine Policy 60, 225–239. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2015.06.016

6. Bilkovic, D.M., Slacum, H.W., Havens, K.J., Zaveta, D., Jeffrey, C.F., Scheld, A., Stanhope, D., Angstadt, K., Evans, J.D, 2016. Ecological and economic effects of derelict fishing gear in the Chesapeake Bay 2015/2016 Final Assessment Report. Virginia Institute of Marine Science, College of William and Mary. https://doi.org/10.21220/V54K5C

7. Breen, P.A., 1987. Mortality of Dungeness crabs caused by lost traps in the Fraser River estuary, British Columbia. North American Journal of Fisheries Management 7(3). https://doi org.ezproxy.library.uvic.ca/10.1577/1548-8659(1987)7<429:MODCCB>2.0.CO;2

8. Antonelis, K., 2013. Development of a Predictive Transboundary Model (Master’s thesis, University of Washington, Seattle, USA). Retrieved from: https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/23504?show=full

9. Antonelis, K., Drinkwin, J., 2021. Predictive model identifying locations of commercial fishing ` gear loss or accumulation in British Columbia, Canada. Natural Resources Consultants, Seattle, WA, USA.

10. Eadie, M., Bright, J., 2021. Ghost Busting: lost fishing gear along the British Columbia coastline. T Buck Suzuki Environmental Foundation, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

11. Richardson, K., Gunn, R., Wilcox, C., Hardesty, B.D., 2018. Understanding causes of gear loss provides a sound basis for fisheries management. Marine Policy 96, 278–284. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.marpol.2018.02.021

12. MacMullen, P., Hareide, N.R., Furevik, D.M., Larssen, P.O., Tschernij, V., Dunlin, G., Revill, A., Pawson, E., Puente, E., Adolfo, U., Sancho, Santos, G., Gaspar, M., Erzini, K., Lino, P., Ribeiro, J., Sacchi, J., 2002. FANTARED 2 - A study to identify, quantify and ameliorate the impacts of static gear lost at sea. Seafish, Edinburgh, United Kingdom.

13. Richardson, K., Hardesty, B.D., Wilcox, C., 2019. Estimates of fishing gear loss rates at a global scale: A literature review and meta-analysis. Fish and Fisheries 20, 1218 - 1231. https://doi.org/10.1111/faf.12407

14. Paton, J., 2021. Area A Dungeness Crab Electronic Monitoring and Lost Fishing Gear, 22. Ecotrust Canada, Prince Rupert, BC, Canada.

15. Goodman, A.J., 2020. State of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear in the Canadian Maritimes. Fishing Gear Coalition of Atlantic Canada 70.