Turning the tide of lost linesOcean Azul is combining retrieval of lost gear with its fishing operations. Photo: Pesquera Azul

A newcomer to the Patagonian toothfish industry is taking the initiative to recover and deliver lost fishing gear for disposal ashore, aiming to reclaim fishing grounds and reduce the impact on the marine ecosystem.

“Our basic intention is to return more lines to shore than we lose at sea,” said Arne Birkeland, CEO of Norwegian-owned Pesquera Azul, now starting its operation in the Southern hemisphere from Uruguay.

“This means less plastic pollution in the ocean, but also better fishing conditions for everyone.”

Their new Ocean Azul, a former shellfish catcher that has been extensively remodelled and rebuilt to operate as a longliner, is being fitted with a Ghost Gear Cleaner to collect and store lost gear on board.

Ocean Azul is also working its own fishing gear with hooks and lines that have a higher-than-usual breaking strength, aiming to reduce breakage and loss of both gear and catch.

Arne Birkeland commented that lost gear is a serious issue facing the global fishing industry, not least in the Antarctic region where Ocean Azul will be working – where some of the most productive fishing grounds are scattered with lost gear to the extent that they are practically off-limits.

“For years the fleet has had to avoid these areas due to the risk of entanglement with ghost lines,” he said, commenting that now Pesquera Azul hopes to set a precedent that will encourage others to join in the cleanup effort.

Small company, big difference

“They’re a new player in the region with only one vessel, but are taking responsibility from the start, and we were impressed by that,” said Joel Baziuk, deputy director of Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), a non-profit organisation dedicated to the problem of lost, abandoned and otherwise discarded fishing gear worldwide.

Pesquera Azul recently joined GGGI, and their initiative has earned Joel Basiuk’s enthusiastic support, although he acknowledges that limited space onboard puts fishermen in a dilemma.

“They could put retrieved gear in the hold, but that takes away space for fish. Retrofitting to make more storage space is another option, but it’s also money out of pocket for fishermen,” he said.

“They have shown that it is possible to make room for retrieval when planning a retrofit or a new vessel. This is a fantastic step forward for the effort to clean up ghost gear.”

“We knew it would be a challenge,” Arne Birkeland confirmed.

“It requires extra equipment and dedicating space on board, and there is an expense involved.”

At the same time, he points out that lost gear retrieval technology is fully proven and accessible, and reasonably affordable.

“We have made entire investment ourselves, and we hope this will convince others to consider the option.”

Lost lines, lost opportunity

According to Joel Baziuk, fishermen are aware that lost gear has an impact not just on the environment, but can also affect their livelihoods.

“This is generating a strong desire to contribute to the clean-up effort. Every fish lost to ghost gear could reproduce more fish, or be caught and sold. It doesn’t matter whose gear it was, once it is removed, fish stocks will rise and everyone will benefit. Ghost gear represents a threat to productivity, and less ghost gear means more fish for the industry,” he said.

GGGI is supported by 16 nations, with the United States joining in July 2020. Joel Baziuk believes that proactive policy is needed to support retrieval and delivery initiatives.

“There should be no cost for disposal, but this often depends on the ports. They need to be able to offer receiving facilities where they are needed, and this will require a framework of regional, national, and local regulations working together.”

Arne Birkeland sees Pesquera Azul’s initiative as an important step toward establishing such measures.

“We will document delivery of old lines and use this as a basis for managing our own environmental footprint,” he said, pointing out that some ports in the region have infrastructure in place to handle disposal of retrieved lines, providing encouraging precedent.

Rights come with responsibility

“Those of us who make our living from the sea have to take responsibility and try to have a positive impact,” Arne Birkeland said.

“If we are given the right to fish, we must return the favour by showing respect for the marine environment. People need to see that the fishing industry is working for sustainability.”

In addition to Pesquera Azul’s investment, Ocean Azul’s crew will also be putting in time and effort.

“It takes time to haul ghost gear on board. Today, most fishermen will cut and release the gear. You have to be willing to do the work as well, but we believe this will pay off in the long run. Someone has to take the initiative to make changes. It might cost more to begin with, but it is extremely important to step up and take responsibility, even if it requires investment on our part.”

According to GGGI’s Joel Baziuk, the aim is to make ghost gear retrieval standard operating procedure and to encourage more companies to incorporate this into their business model.

“Even without financial incentives, clearing fishing grounds will strengthen fish stock and improve fishing conditions, so the long-term incentive is there. Pesquera Azul’s example should serve to inspire others and show that it can be done.”

By investing its own time and money, Pesquera Azul hopes to punch above its weight in the effort to clean up lost lines.

“We’re a small company, but we are hoping to make a big difference here,” Arne Birkeland said.

“We are happy to be the first, and we hope others will follow.”

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