Washington — The U.S. government signed on to a global project July 16 that aims to contain and clean up derelict fishing gear, which it said accounts for a significant amount of larger-sized plastic debris in the oceans.
Supporters of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, which currently has 15 other national governments and 85 organizations as members, said they hope the stepped up involvement from the U.S. can help tackle a problem that does significant harm to marine life.
Studies estimate that ghost gear, as the abandoned equipment like plastic fishing lines and netting is called, accounts for between 46 and 70 percent of the macroplastics floating in the oceans, according to the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy, which administers the GGGI.
A GGGI statement labeled ghost gear "the single most harmful form of marine debris to ocean life" because it can catch and kill marine life long after it's been discarded. The program started in 2015.
"As awareness of the ghost gear threat has grown, we've been heartened to see key fishing nations take action," GGGI Director Ingrid Giskes said. "We have welcomed U.S. support and leadership on the issue to date, and we're excited to have them onboard as a GGGI member as we expand our partnership to protect our ocean."
Statements from GGGI and the U.S. State Department did not discuss any additional funding for the effort but federal officials said progress will require support and coordinated activity from many organizations.
Jonathan Moore, the State Department's senior official in the Bureau of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, said addressing marine debris is a "key administrative priority."
The U.S. noted its efforts in helping draft guidelines on the marking of fishing gear as part of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, for example.
"[Ghost gear] is the deadliest and most harmful form of marine debris to marine animals," Moore said in a statement. "When improperly discarded in a natural environment, it can indiscriminately entangle fish and other animals while severely damaging marine habitats."
The U.S. government said that about 640,000 metric tons (1.4 billion pounds) of ghost gear enters the ocean each year, and about 80 percent of the animals that get entangled in it are injured or killed.
Ghost gear hurts fisheries economically and reduces fish available for eating, GGGI said. About 90 percent of the species caught in abandoned gear have commercial value, it said.
GGGI said U.S. involvement is key because it's the seventh-largest fishing nation, and accounts for 19 percent of world seafood consumption.
It pointed to equipment losses in the U.S. It said the fishing industry in New England reports losing 10 to 30 percent of its lobster traps each year and estimated that 250,000 derelict crab traps are lost each year in the Gulf of Mexico.
GGGI said it works to implement best practices like marking and tracking fishing gear, mapping hotspots, finding markets for materials from recycling ghost gear and pulling it from sensitive habitats and fishing grounds.