If you love spending time on, in, or under the water, then we’re sure you’ve heard about the challenges our oceans our facing – climate change, overfishing, and pollution, just to name a few.
In recent years, the commercial fishing industry has been in the firing line of ocean conservationists from around the world, and it’s easy to see why. Overfishing has depleted key fish species, bycatch has brought other animals such as sharks and rays to the brink of extinction, and destructive fishing practices continue to damage our ocean floor.
Yet one thing that seems to have slipped under the radar slightly is the extent of plastic pollution generated through industrial fishing.
Nets, traps, and lines are all lost from time to time and, as they float unattended across our oceans, they can easily ensnare delicate marine life, often with fatal consequences. On top of that, many of these debris eventually wash up on our coral reefs, where they damage delicate coral structures that can take hundreds of years to form.
But it doesn’t stop there… while nets, traps, and lines going missing has long been considered as an inevitable part of fishing, these days, fishing companies are deliberately placing plastics in our oceans and letting them float away.
Sounds bizarre doesn’t it?
These floating contraptions are known as fish aggregating devices (or FADs for short) and their use has become increasingly common over the last 30 years.
So, what exactly are FADs? Should we be worried about them? And is there anything we can do to help?
What Exactly Are FADs And How Do They Work?
Fish are curious features, and they tend to accumulate around floating objects.
The reasons for this behavior aren’t known for sure, but it’s thought that juveniles are attracted by the potential for protection from predators, and an accumulation of juveniles, which in turn eventually attracts larger fish.
This means that placing FADs in the water and waiting for fish to aggregate makes it easier to catch more fish at once, which is why they’ve become so popular, particularly in the tuna industry.
FADs can be moored to the bottom of the ocean so that they stay in one place, while others are designed to be free floating. They were traditionally constructed using some natural materials, such as logs, but these days they’re often entirely artificial and made mainly from plastics.
FADs can be designed to float above the water or slightly below the surface, the latter of which are called midwater FADs and are usually marked with a buoy on the surface.
Nowadays, many FADs are equipped with satellite tags and echo sounders that transmit important information about the FAD, including its location, how many fish are surrounding it, and even the size of those fish. This makes fishing with FADs even more efficient – you can sit back and wait for the perfect time to harvest your fish.
What’s The Problem With FADs?
Clearly, FADs have flipped fishing on its head – gone are the days of searching for large schools of fish for hours on end.
So, what’s the catch?
FADs have sparked concern among ocean conservationists for various reasons. One key concern is target species are prone to overfishing now that it’s so easy to catch them. Another concern is the lack of specificity – the nets used to catch the fish around FADs will catch anything, which means that non-target fish will also be caught, and this might include endangered species like sharks and turtles.
What’s more, FADs are prone to attracting juveniles and, if these are removed from the ocean in vast quantities, it can cause huge declines in fish populations.
Another issue occurs as FADs make their way through the oceans. Some are designed to drift, but even moored ones often break free and end up on their own adventures. As these objects float through the sea, marine creatures regularly become ensnared, often with fatal consequences.
Finally, ocean currents often cause FADs to crash into fragile coral reefs where they damage fragile coral structures and often settle permanently. Here, they will slowly degrade, contributing to the accumulation of microplastics in our oceans, the ingestion of which is thought to harm marine animals (and also the humans that eat them!).
Fortunately, ocean conservationists aren’t the only ones to recognize these issues, and many governments have stepped in to ameliorate the harmful impacts of FADs. These include regulating the number of FADs permitted in certain waters to prevent overfishing, monitoring the hauls of fishing vessels to assess bycatch, and requesting tracking data so that the movements of FADs can be monitored.
Yet despite these promising efforts, a growing number of FADs are floating around our oceans where they continue to ensnare marine life and contribute to the plastic crisis.
So what can we do to help?
How Can We Help?
Scuba divers spend much of their time underwater and are therefore in a unique position to help identify and remove FADs that have washed onto our reefs. But removing FADs can be hard work (not to mention dangerous), so what should divers do if they spot a FAD somewhere it shouldn’t be?
First things first, make a note of where the FAD is – you need to be able to find it again or direct someone to it! It’s also important that you don’t try and remove the FAD straight away. If you do decide to remove it, you’ll want to make a plan above water with your buddy or team and make sure you have all the right gear.
You also need to be aware of how to remove the FAD without harming yourself or the reef – the Project AWARE Dive Against Debris Specialty course is an excellent way to get some top tips on how to remove ocean debris efficiently and safely.
It’s also crucial that you know your limits – there’s no shame in leaving a FAD if removing it would be potentially dangerous. You could remove small parts of it instead (something’s better than nothing after all) or report it to your local authorities or conservation groups.
Even as a non-diver, if you spend a lot of time on the water or by the coast, you might spot a FAD drifting towards the shore from time to time. In some countries, such as the Seychelles, the government has teamed up with fishing companies and conservation teams so that tagged FADs can be intercepted before they wash ashore – so it’s definitely worth reporting a FAD if you see one.
Finally, you can also help tackle the issue of FADs by only purchasing sustainably caught fish, such those caught by purse seine fisheries that don’t use FADs at all (the ones that use FADs aren’t classed as sustainable).
So, now you know what all the fuss is about FADs. Hopefully you’ll never see one on your watery adventures but, if you do, at least you’ll know what it is and what you can do to help!