Fundy North Fishermen’s Association
Canada exports one billion dollars worth of lobster annually making it their most valuable fishery. Lobster pots are lost primarily due to gear conflicts with neighbouring marine industries, and to a lesser extent to storms and gear conflicts among fishers. These derelict 'ghost' pots continue to fish across lobster grounds, damaging lobster stocks and other forms of marine life as well as impacting on fishers’ livelihoods. On Canada's east coast, the salmon aquaculture industry and commercial shipping industry are most commonly involved in fishing gear conflicts. In addition to ghost fishing, the ropes pose an entanglement risk to marine animals such as whales and turtles. These traps also cause damage to other vessels, with each dry-docking costing hundreds of thousands of dollars in addition to lost revenue.
From 2008-present, Fundy North Fishermen’s Association (FNFA) has been conducting a ghost gear retrieval project. Two main areas were identified as areas of high gear loss: Saint John Harbour (an industrial port and key fishing ground) and Head Harbour Passage at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy (an important whale habitat, prime fishing ground, and area of intensive salmon aquaculture activity).
FNFA represents small-scale commercial fishers working in species such as lobsters, scallops, groundfish, shad, gaspereau and eels. The mission statement of the association is to 'support fishermen, promote healthy fisheries and encourage viable fishing communities in Southwestern New Brunswick'.
Over the past ten years, Fundy North has undertaken a large ghost gear retrieval program in Saint John Harbour and Head Harbour Passage. Some of the traps retrieved were up to 20 years old. The ghost gear was retrieved using the expert skills of fishers with grapnels that they designed specifically for this work and operated from their fishing vessels.
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 and protocols have been put in place in Saint John Harbour that have significantly reduced gear loss due to ship traffic. Work is ongoing with the salmon aquaculture industry to develop protocols to reduce fishing gear loss and Fundy North continues to work on educational campaigns aimed at both fishermen and workers in neighbouring marine industries.
FNFA has retrieved over 1000 lost lobster traps, 23,726 feet of rope, 692 metres of cable, 76 buoys, and 25 metres of chain since the program started. Their ghost gear clean-up program led to them becoming the first ever recipient of the Gulf of Maine Council Marine Environment Industry Award in 2009 for their efforts in Saint John Harbour.
In the most recent phase of the project, in addition to expanding our retrieval efforts, FNFA has been working to facilitate sustainable disposal methods. Notably, old fishing rope is now being recycled at Fundy Plastics and is also being reused to create mats and other crafts.
Another highlight in this phase of the project has been the success of our trap repurposing program. Fishers with old and unwanted traps are being matched with landscapers and homeowners seeking traps to build retaining walls. The traps are given away for free provided that the pick-up can be arranged by the company or homeowner seeking the traps. This program has received praise from the community as an innovative solution to disposing of old lobster traps, which can be challenging due to logistical and financial constraints. Through forming these partnerships, both parties have been working together to find long-term sustainable avenues to find old gear new life. We plan to continue to facilitate these partnerships in the coming years.
For the next chapter of the project, FNFA will be branching out to the Gulf Region to disseminate the knowledge we have gained in ghost gear retrieval methods and to encourage other fishers to implement their own ghost gear initiatives. We have also begun identifying new ghost gear hotspots in need of grappling efforts to retrieve lost gear, which has been done in consultation with fishers using participatory mapping techniques. Areas of priority for grappling will be identified by overlaying important habitat areas for rare and species at risk. These areas will become our target areas for retrieval in the next 2 years.
Lost fishing gear is lost income to fishers. They must pay for new gear and they lose the revenue that trap would have generated if it fished the whole season. Also, ghost gear can kill target and non-target organisms indiscriminately leading to lower populations of commercial species. There is no incentive for fishers to lose gear. Unlike other jurisdictions, lobster fishers in the Canadian Bay of Fundy more often than not work collaboratively and even organize themselves to set gear in straight lines in the most heavily fished areas, in order to reduce gear loss.
Ghost gear begets more ghost gear. Fundy North fishers have found that when a lobster trap is lost, it has a tendency to move around and will snag active fishing gear. Some of the ghost gear was retrieved as huge snarls that clearly started with one lost trap catching more traps each season creating a big snarl. Once these big snarls are cleaned up, fishers report that they don’t lose nearly as much gear anymore.
Skilled fishers can grapnel ghost gear even in deep water and areas of high current. But it is labour and fuel intensive. It is much more cost effective to prevent gear loss as much as possible.
Regulations allowing fishers to participate in a regular clean-up day at the end of each fishing season can be much more effective than expensive ghost gear retrieval projects.
Convenient and inexpensive disposal facilities for old fishing gear are vital to ghost gear prevention. This, coupled with education campaigns for fishers, can nearly eradicate disposal at sea. In the Bay of Fundy, fishers used to regularly discard their old fishing gear and even garbage at sea. But after several awareness campaigns and studies, this practice is very uncommon now and there is considerable peer pressure from other fishers to bring all garbage ashore.
The most difficult part of the problem is engaging neighbouring marine industries that operate among fixed fishing gear. When a whale becomes entangled in fishing gear, it is difficult (if not impossible) to know whether the gear was active or lost when the whale became entangled. This gear is then traced back to a fishery or a fisher, never to the vessel that fouled the gear. It can be difficult to convince neighbouring industries to change their practices or routes to avoid fishing gear. Increasing global awareness of the ghost gear problem may help promote cooperation among sectors for the prevention and clean-up of ghost gear.
Lillian Mitchell, Executive Director - Fundy North Fishermen’s Association