By Published: May 28, 2024

CU Boulder PhD student Clare Gallagher finds reason for hope amid the complexities of negotiations to craft a U.N. treaty addressing a worldwide crisis

In the past year, Clare Gallagher has gotten very interested in ghost gear, which she admits is “a really depressing Google search” if you’re not already familiar with it.

Ghost gear is the umbrella term for lost, abandoned or discarded fishing gear that contributes to the crisis of plastic pollution in Earth’s oceans and can trap fish and marine mammals, causing them to die by suffocation or exhaustion. In the upper Gulf of California, for example, abandoned gillnetting has contributed to the vaquita porpoise nearing the brink of extinction.

When Gallagher, a PhD student in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Environmental Studies, joined an observer delegation at the fourth session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee on Plastic Pollution April 23-29 in Ottawa, Canada, she learned that fishing gear is included in a proposed international treaty on plastic pollution that would be discussed at the weeklong gathering.

Clare Gallagher by sculpture outside UN treaty session

Clare Gallagher, a PhD student in the CU Boulder Department of Environmental Studies, by a sculpture outside a U.N. treaty negotiating session in Ottawa, Canada. (Photo: Clare Gallagher)

However, after attending several all-day—and sometimes into the night—negotiating sessions, “I learned that fishing gear is almost like a side note to the greater problem. Single-use plastics are so nefarious, and this is the next climate change fight,” Gallagher says.

“To be able to go sit in conference room for 14 hours a day for nine days straight—and the final meetings went until 3 a.m.—I was pretty in awe of the dedication of the people in these meetings. But then at the same time, it was also incredibly frustrating when there’s not a lot of progress made. It’s just the way of global geopolitics, and I was getting a crash course in this—there will be some countries or blocs of countries that don’t want strong treaties, like oil-producing countries, just as there are countries that have been against strong environmental treaties for the last several decades.”

The gathering Gallagher attended was the fourth session of the U.N. Intergovernmental Negotiating Committee on Plastic Pollution and focused on the marine environment. The committee’s stated goal is to have a completed treaty written by the end of the year.

For Gallagher, attending the session not only was eye-opening to the intricacies of global geopolitics, but also brought several other key insights, including:

Abandoned fishing gear is one problem of many in the crisis of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans

“Microplastics were a huge, huge topic at the treaty discussions,” Gallagher says. “From a health standpoint, I was really surprised to see so many endocrinologists there. The endocrine destruction from chemicals that are being added to plastics is linked to the obesity epidemic, to the epidemic of anxiety and depression. It’s actually pretty terrifying.”

Among the discussion topics were plastic pellets, sometimes called nurdles, which are commonly used as a raw material for making plastic products. They are frequently shipped via container, and if pellets ever spill from those containers into a marine environment, the environmental damage and harm to living creatures can be devastating.

“So, some of the discussion was about classifying them as hazardous waste,” Gallagher says.

However, abandoned fishing gear is a big problem

“Ghost gear is the colloquial term,” Gallagher explains. “The more scientific term is abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear, or ALDFG, and it’s just a terrible thing. Let’s say you a have huge vessel that’s fishing tuna in the Pacific and use purse seines, which are these crazy kilometer-wide nets that can cinch up entire schools of tuna.

“Say that net gets lost or is intentionally cut by crew or just gets stuck on something or there’s a full-on accident. That net will continue to fish whales, dolphins, turtles, you name it after it’s lost contact with the vessel. That’s why we get term ‘ghost,’ because fishing continues to happen in a worst-case scenario.”

Gallagher notes that purse seines typically are made of nylon, which sinks in water because of its density, so they’re not a significant contributor to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is now about the size of Alaska. However, lighter density nets and fishing line made of high-denisty polyethylene wash up on shorelines around the world, “so it’s pretty incredible that this treaty is trying to address fishing gear as its own plastic pollution sector because almost all commercial fishing nets and lines are made of plastic polymers, so this treaty could address industrial, global and local fishing economies.”

United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee on Plastic Pollution session

CU Boulder PhD student Clare Gallager attended the fourth session of the United Nations Intergovernmental Negotiation Committee on Plastic Pollution as an observer. (Photo: Clare Gallagher)

Many perceive plastic pollution as a symptom a bigger issue

“The biggest thing is production,” Gallagher says, “stopping primary plastic production. That’s one of the things that’s so interesting about this treaty process, because it’s almost the same story, it’s the same players, it’s the same perpetrators as the international debate over fossil fuel emissions.”

In fact, Gallagher notes, the Center for International Environmental Law analyzed the affiliations of registered attendees for the session and found almost 200 lobbyists for the fossil fuel and chemical industries were registered.

The problems of plastic pollution are daunting, but there’s room for hope

“I felt, not being a United Nations treaty expert, pretty overwhelmed by the scale at which countries around the world need to compromise and work together to create any international treaty, especially environmental treaties,” Gallagher says. “It’s pretty overwhelming to think this is how humanity governs itself at the top level.

“That being said, I have hope that the most ambitious countries will continue to push for a strong treaty on plastic pollution. I don’t know if remorse is right word, but there is sadness that many of the countries suffering the most from plastic pollution are not producing the plastic. They’re the ones that have to deal with plastic trash and plastic pollution, the ones that have to fight for a strong treaty, and there’s a real power imbalance that I find so disgusting and disturbing.”

Gallagher says one of the most impressive coalitions she observed at the session was the Pacific Small Island Developing States (PSIDS): “There was a woman from Easter Island, which, granted, is part of Chile, and she told a story about how every time her young son goes surfing, which is like every day, she has to wash his hair because there’s so much microplastic in it when he’s done.

“People from some of the smallest, poorest countries repeatedly said, ‘This is not complex. We don’t want your trash; we need to stop this.’ I think that bravery and that fight—these Davids taking on Goliaths, as seen in the Rapa Nui Declaration—is what is going to make the world a better place.”

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