Fish Aggregating Devices

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Now, more than ever, abandoned fish aggregating devices (FADs) need to be reported to boost the public’s awareness of this unregulated gear, and to garner support within communities to petition the US to advocate for the tracking of these devices within the appropriate international management organizations. This is in line with NOAA’s Honolulu Strategy: To develop and promote use of technologies and methods to effectively locate and remove marine debris. You can use the Marine Debris Tracker app to report FADs in their own list.

What is a Fish Aggregating Device?

A fish aggregating device is an artificial object anchored or drifting in the open ocean to attract fish. Drifting FADs float with the current, collecting fish as they move across the ocean. The devices are constructed out of a variety of materials, but they have several identifiable parts. A common style is composed of a surface float, often constructed of bamboo poles wrapped in synthetic netting or of large aluminum buoys; a satellite tracking buoy; and subsurface (often synthetic) netting, which can stretch from 10 meters to 300 meters below the surface, to attract fish. Often times, it is hard to identify FADs that have washed up on shore because they can look like other derelict gear. However, purse seine netting that has lots of ropes and plastic streamers tied on to it will most likely be a FAD, because those are tied on by fishermen to attract more fish. Below are photos of FADs stacked on the deck of a purse seine vessel before they’re deployed, which shows plastic streamers (photo credit: NOAA) and ropes tied to purse seine netting (Photo credit: Adam Baske). Satellite buoys also indicate that the gear was used as a FAD.

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FAD Indian Ocean

Tuna and other open-water species of fish naturally gather under flotsam. Tuna fishing vessels that use large nets to encircle entire schools of fish, known as purse seiners, capitalize on this behavior to increase catches of Skipjack Tuna (approximately 50% of the world’s tuna is caught using FADs). In fact, the major purse seine fishing fleets of the world set out tens of thousands of these FADs each year. They are put out for months or years at a time, often equipped with satellite tracking devices and echo sounders to detect their location as well as the amount of fish underneath them. These technologically advanced devices allow fishing vessels to determine where and when to return to set their nets so that they can catch the most fish.

FAD - 3Issues with FADs

Skipjack tuna aren’t the only animals that are attracted to fish aggregating devices. High numbers of vulnerable marine species are caught when purse seine vessels set their nets around FADs, including severely depleted shark species, endangered sea turtles, and juvenile Bigeye Tuna, which are already overfished in the Pacific Ocean. The use of FADs has been steadily increasing for almost 30 years, and so have catches of these non-target species, many of which are discarded dead. Since there are no regulations on how many FADs can be put in the water or on the collection of these devices, thousands are abandoned each year when they are no longer economically viable for use by purse seiners (not enough fish underneath, have floated too far from fishing grounds, etc.). While this occurs all across the globe, the most recent example of this can be shown in the eastern Pacific Ocean, where the IATTC just posted a report showing the number of FADs deployed vs number of FADs retrieved, and the number abandoned each year continues to grow meaning that thousands of these devices each year become ghost fishing gear on the open ocean or burden on the clean up groups and coastal communities where FADs wash ashore (the GEF published a study in 2011 that mentioned as marine litter increased, perceived value of the beach decreased leading to increased costs in clean up as well as decreased revenue from tourism).

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What separates FADs from other types of marine debris is that because almost all of them have tracking devices attached to them, they’re a form of derelict gear that can actually be located and retrieved. The companies that own these FADs know where they are at all times. In April, Pew and the PNA, eight countries who have most of the world’s tuna in their waters, expanded on a pilot project to track the 50,000 FADs being used in the western and central Pacific Ocean, illustrating that FAD tracking is, in fact, possible using the technology that already exists on these fishing vessels. The issue is that the regulatory mechanism is not in place to require the purse seine fishery, which makes billions of dollars each year from this type of fishing, to retrieve their gear from the ocean. Among others, coastal clean-up organizations, those a part of the coastal tourism industry, and those concerned about the growing amount of debris in our oceans should be concerned about the increase in FAD use not only because of the large contributions they make to marine debris each year, but also because of the misplaced burden and cost it places on these groups. Because they often get lumped in with other derelict fishing gear, FADs are often not reported when they wash up on shore, minimizing the public’s awareness of their proliferation.

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