Keeping Derelict Fishing Gear Out of the Ocean – What to Do With Old, and Tattered Gear?

Written by the Urban Harbors Institute at UMass Boston

Most fishing gear—nets, trawls, lines, (some) traps, and buoys – is made of plastic polymers. Plastic is a long-lasting, durable, and inexpensive (man-made) material, making it ideal for use in both commercial and recreational fishing industries. However, due to several months and years of heavy use, most gear becomes worn and begins to degrade. This leads to gear being lost in the ocean and breaking down into microplastics. Recent research has shown that a large majority of plastic pollution in the ocean is a result of derelict fishing gear. Both large and fragmented pieces of gear are hazardous to marine life and can damage fishing vessel equipment.

But for gear that makes it back to land, what happens when it gets there?

Most used gear disposed of by commercial fishermen on land is sent to a landfill or incinerator, often paid for by the ports. As awareness of plastic pollution and the issue of derelict fishing gear increases, so does the need for alternatives to dealing with end-of-life gear. Recycling is an alternative to the landfill and incineration but poses some complexities. Fishing gear is usually made up of different plastic types that require separate recycling pathways and can contain organic contaminants from time spent in the water which needs to be removed prior to recycling. Nets specifically, are fibrous and often entangled requiring special equipment to break them down for use in raw materials. Thus, much of the gear cannot be discarded via mainstream recycling and needs specialized services.

In recent years, there has been development in specialized recycling services for used fishing gear including operations that store used gear from commercial fishers and then ship it to entities that recycle and reuse the gear in manufactured goods. Some ports and dock areas will provide bins for monofilament lines to be recycled and reused as well.

Recycling and reusing fishing gear can help to reduce the amount of ghost gear that ends up in the ocean. Moving towards a circular economy approach can improve waste management in the fishing industry and reduce energy use and emissions related to the production of new plastic materials.Prior to recycling your used fishing gear, it is important to know what options are available to you and understand what types of gear are accepted. Some entities may take the gear with all of its extra contaminants and/or attachments but others may require it be sorted beforehand.

Below is a list of resources in the United States for anyone with gear to recycle or interested in getting involved (dependent on region). Since this industry is still evolving, this is not an exhaustive list and we encourage those who know of other resources they’d like to share to please reach out:


Sources used in this post: (image)