Nova Scotia

New study shows how ghost gear hurting species at risk and N.S. lobster fishery

A new study is helping to quantify the amount of abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear in some of the most important lobster fishing waters in Atlantic Canada.

Around seven metric tonnes of abandoned gear was found by researchers off coast of southwestern Nova Scotia

Over seven tons of abandoned lobster traps and other fishing gear were found over1,523 square kilometers in South West Nova Scotia. (Cape Breton Environmental Association)

More than seven tonnes of lost or discarded fishing gear was found by researchers off the coast of southwestern Nova Scotia, pointing to the scale of the problem of "ghost gear" in one of the province's most important commercial fishing grounds. 

The gear was found during searches of Lobster Fishing Areas 33 and 34 after five boats took 60 trips during the summer and fall of last year. The gear was all located between 10 and 20 kilometres off the coast of Nova Scotia.

Two-thirds of the recovered gear was comprised of lobster traps, according to the new study conducted by the School for Resource and Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University. The rest was made up of fishing rope, buoys and dragger cable. 

Tony Walker is one of the authors of the study on "ghost gear," a term used to describe a trap that continues to catch fish and lobster after it's been abandoned. He said when ghost gear isn't removed properly, it creates a cycle of "self-baiting" — the gear will continue to attract and trap fish and lobster until the gear itself deteriorates, sometimes up to four years. 

"When the traps are lost, and especially if they're fresh, they still contain bait," he told CBC Radio's Maritime Noon.

"Then they still continue to catch either the target species, in this case most of the time it's lobster, but they also continue to catch by-catch."

Tony Walker from the School for Resource & Environmental Studies at Dalhousie University talks about a new study he has co-authored about the disturbing effects of ghost fishing gear in Southwest NS, we hear your talkback calls on the barriers to sport and on the phone-in: Barry Walker on heat pumps 53:01

Species at risk

Walker said 15 species were also found in the traps, seven of them were ground fish. Five of these fish are species at risk. Walker said one of them was the historically over-fished Atlantic cod, and an emaciated Atlantic wolf fish that was quickly released.

Lobster was the most commonly found species, Walker said. Of the 239 lobsters that were found in ghost traps, two-thirds were market-sized.

That loss of lobster to ghost gear has a real impact on fishermen's livelihoods, said Alexa Goodman, a co-author of the study. Goodman said that lobster traps do have escape panels that are designed to fall off if gear is lost, but it doesn't always work. 

"Even with a two per cent trap loss annually, this can contribute to upwards of $176,000 in commercial losses annually," Goodman told CBC News.

For this reason, Goodman said most fishers do their best to collect lost gear to prevent losses but it's not always possible. They emphasized continued action is needed on preventing ghost gear because species at risk are also affected.

"This is a cause for concern and something that should be continually monitored."

With files from CBC Radio's Maritime Noon