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Protecting the Ocean with RFID Tracking in the Gulf of St. Lawrence

Ghost Fishing Gear Tracking

Every year, more than 12 million tons of plastic end up in the oceans. Ten percent of this is due to ghost nets and other lost or illegally disposed fishing gear, known as "ghost fishing gear."

In Canada, more than 63 tons of ghost nets, mostly crab traps and lobster traps, were removed from the Atlantic Ocean in 2020 alone. 14 percent of this came from the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

There, the integrator Institut Technologique de Maintenance Industrielle (ITMI) is now tracking fishing equipment with RFID tracking hardware from Axem Technology.

Ghost Fishing Gear Tracking

Fishing equipment from 25 Boats in Sept-Îles, on the North Coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in Eastern Canada, are tracked with UHF RFID from Axem Technology.

Along the shores of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, fishing remains a major industry.

With approx. 26,000 inhabitants, Sept-Îles is the northern most city in Québec.

Bay of Sept-Îles

Sept-Îles is located on the north coast of the Gulf of St. Lawrence in eastern Canada. With a population of approximately 26,000, it is the northernmost city in Quebec. The Gulf of St. Lawrence represents an incredibly diverse and complex marine and estuarine ecosystem and is one of the largest of its kind in the world. The abundance of marine life species is enormous.

The Port of Sept-Îles is the second most important in terms of fish volume and revenue in the North Shore region. It is of great importance to Quebec's food industry. Basque fishermen from Spain and France spent the summer months here hunting cod and whale since the 16th century. As the most important industry, whaling was replaced in the 20th century by iron ore mining in the territories north of the city. Fishing is now practiced in small and medium-sized family businesses. Ice sea crabs, shrimps, cod, halibut, sea snails and lobsters are the most important catch species.

The fact that fishing affects biodiversity in the waters off Sept-Îles is well known. Since 2019, consideration has been given to designating areas of the Gulf of St. Lawrence south of Sept-Îles as protected zones for corals and sponges. There, there is a ban on bottom-contact fishing gear, i.e., bottom trawls, dredges, bottom seines, fish traps, bottom longlines, and gillnets.

Locating Lost Nets

An incredible 12 million tons of plastic end up in the ocean every year. The equivalent of one garbage truck full of plastic waste is emptied directly into the sea every minute. Plastic drifts with the currents and is slowly decomposed by UV radiation, bacteria, salt, temperature fluctuations or friction. It can be found everywhere in the ocean today in the form of microplastics. Some of it, however, sinks to the bottom and forms thick garbage carpets there.

Over 85 % of the trash on the seafloor, on submarine mounts and ocean ridges, as well as in the Great Pacific Garbage Gyre, is formed by ghost fishing gear. This includes lost or illegally disposed of set nets, trap nets, lobster traps, and fishing lines. Ghost nets damage coral reefs, prevent marine mammals from surfacing, and pose a long-term potential for damage to marine biodiversity.

In the past, fishing nets were made of perishable natural fibers such as hemp, sisal or linen. Loss of hand-knotted nets was a pain, but not a heavy burden on the environment. Since synthetic materials such as polypropylene, polyethylene and nylon (polyamide) are much more durable, they have completely replaced natural materials since the 1960s.

Modern nets are single- or multi-threaded, knotless or knotted, and are made for different types of fishing. Lobster, for which Quebec is a top producer, is caught in baskets; Arctic crab, shrimp, and cod with bottom-set gillnets; and halibut is caught with trawls, which consist of one main vein and many hundreds of secondary veins, each with a fish hook at the end.

Fishing nets made of natural fibers

Fishing nets made of natural fibers were not a heavy burden on the environment in former times.

Metal fish traps for catching live fish.

Metal fish traps for catching live fish. Previously, these fish traps would be made of sisal.

Fishing supplies consist almost entirely of synthetic fibers.

Fishing supplies consist almost entirely of synthetic fibers, which pose a threat to marine ecology.

Ghost nets account for 10 % of plastic waste in the world's oceans. They cause widespread damage to animals and the environment.

Ghost nets

A grey seal has become entangled in a ghost net and is relying on help from humans to get free of the net.

In severe storms, bottom-set gillnets can be torn from their moorings and trawl nets from their attachments to trawlers. This is one of the most common causes of ghost nets. In deep waters above 500 m, trawls are most problematic due to excessive net length, longer exposure time of saltwater to the fibers, making them more pliable, and gear stress. The deeper and closer to the seafloor fishing takes place, the more likely it is that nets or parts of nets will become entangled on the bottom and break off.

Another cause of ghost net formations lies in the deliberate disposal of fishing gear. Illegal fishermen throw nets overboard or cut the attachment lines while fishing as soon as they suspect inspection by authorities. Fishermen sometimes dump old and broken nets in the sea instead of disposing of them in accordance with regulations.

Ghost nets continue to perform their function as they drift through the sea: they catch fish and marine mammals. These die in the nets – and attract larger predatory fish, which may also become entangled and die.

More than 300 species worldwide are affected by entanglement in plastic nets, including seabirds. Smaller nets and parts of nets are often ingested by marine animals, affecting their quality of life. Ghost trap nets pose a particular threat to the seafloor. They move across the bottom like bulldozers during storms. In the process, they inflict significant damage to seagrass beds and harm corals and sponges. The ecological threat posed by fishing gear is clear to residents in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, especially since boaters and marine traffic are also affected by the ghost nets.

Laurent Ferrier, Embedded Systems & IoT Researcher, Head of Embedded Systems Department at the Institut Technologique de Maintenance Industrielle (ITMI) in Sept-Îles elaborates, "Ghost nets cause ecological problems, especially for whales, but also for boat traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence."

In shallow coastal waters below depths of 200 m, the rate of net loss is lower than at greater depths, and locating nets and retrieving them is easier. In deep ocean regions, however, locating lost nets is only possible with depth sounder. Recovery is extremely difficult as the nets wrap around coral and rocks. Professional divers are hired for these tasks.


  • Shelf life of fishing nets: 400 to 600 years
  • 6 % of all fishing nets used are lost per year
  • 9 % of all trap baskets are lost per year
  • Nets in industrial fishing are up to 100 km long
  • approx. 29 % of all used trolling rods are lost per year

Source: Karli Thomas, Dr. Cat Dorey and Farah Obaidullah (2019) Ghost Gear: The Abandoned Fishing Nets Haunting Our Oceans. Hamburg: Greenpeace Germany.

Track & Trace of Fishing Supplies

The Sept-Îles-based integrator ITMI has teamed up with Axem Technology to develop an RFID solution for fishing supplies. "Our goal was to develop a traceability solution for fishing equipment such as nets or crab traps," explains Théophile Bornon, Embedded Systems Researcher at ITMI. "Thanks to the solution, not only can all fishing equipment be identified, it can also be determined if and where it has been lost." The tags that make this possible are integrated into polymer cords that are attached to the nets or fishing baskets. They are saltwater resistant and operate in the UHF range. The tags make the nets unique and clearly identifiable.

The fishing equipment including the tagged nets is loaded. The tags are passive, i.e. they receive the energy required for radio transmission by induction through the reader. This is located on the command bridge of the fishing boat. The RFID antenna is mounted on deck.

The tags of the equipment are read regularly and the data is recorded in real time with time stamp and GPS data. They are then transmitted to the boat control system.

The collected data is transmitted to a cloud database upon return to port in SeptÎles. The current stock is compared by means of the data with the equipment that had been loaded. If there is a difference, it is clear that parts of the nets or catch baskets have been lost. The unique IDs of the tags are used to determine exactly which pieces of equipment are involved. GPS data and time stamps make it possible to determine the point at which and where the material was lost.

The cloud database not only identifies where and how much equipment was lost during a trip. Each identification number is linked to further product information of the tagged objects. This includes, for example, the material of the fishing equipment. This data is securely stored in the database in standardized formats.

Nets, ropes and fish traps are equipped with special saltwater-resistant RFID tags from Axem Technology.
Nets, ropes and fish traps are equipped with special saltwater-resistant RFID tags from Axem Technology.
Nets, ropes and fish traps are equipped with special saltwater-resistant RFID tags from Axem Technology.
Nets, ropes and fish traps are equipped with special saltwater-resistant RFID tags from Axem Technology.
Nets, ropes and fish traps are equipped with special saltwater-resistant RFID tags from Axem Technology.

The irregular shapes of fishing equipment, as well as the harsh environmental conditions of salt water, complicate the application and use of RFID tags.

Thanks to RFID, fishing equipment is identified throughout the entire product life cycle – from production, to use in fishing, to recycling.

Thanks to RFID, fishing equipment is identified throughout the entire product life cycle.

RFID readers are used on fishing boats as well as in the recycling plant to uniquely identify fishing equipment.

The UHF RFID tag is used to identify and track all tagged fishing equipment throughout the product life cycle. The storage location of each individual net and basket is always known. However, equipment will still get lost. They are retrieved from the sea and taken to a recycling facility. There, the tag is captured with a Bluetooth RFID reader. The data on the UHF RFID chip allows for accurate identification. The same applies to obsolete or damaged equipment that has reached the end of its product life and is taken to the recycling plant for disposal.

Fishermen are supported in the disposal of fishing gear and life cycle management is optimized. This will increase the willingness of fishermen to dispose of old nets legally on land.

The RFID solution from ITMI and Axem Technology brings benefits on many levels. Tagging fishing equipment prevents the long-term loss of nets and fishing baskets. This is because abandoned nets are quickly identified and retrieved before they sink to the seabed or drift away. On the one hand, this reduces the costs that fishermen have to incur to purchase new equipment. On the other hand, the tedious and costly recovery of ghost nets becomes unnecessary.

The recycling plant is a great asset for Sept-Îles. The recycling of fishing equipment will be optimized and the safety of boat traffic in the Gulf of St. Lawrence will increase. Overall, this solution reduces the negative environmental impact of fishing. Biodiversity in the Gulf of St. Lawrence is preserved and at the same time the work of fishermen and fishing associations is facilitated.

Interview with Mathieu Bagot


A milestone in the fight against marine pollution

Mathieu Bagot explains in an interview with RFID & Wireless IoT Global the special features and benefits of the new RFID tags for the tracking of fishing supplies

Mathieu Bagot is international sales manager at Axem Technology.

The development of highly specific RFID tags and applications for a wide range of industries is one of Axem Technology's core competencies. This includes particularly resistant tags, for example, saltwater- resistant tags. Since fishing is characterized by a particularly harsh environment that places high demands on the tag, ITMI turned to Axem Technology.

Fishing supplies such as nets, ropes and fish traps have irregular shapes. This makes tag application difficult and requires a flexible design. In addition, lost gear can remain in the sea for a long time until it is retrieved. The tag must be firmly anchored to the equipment while remaining functional over the long term despite extreme temperatures and harsh saltwater environments.

The UHF RFID tags are resistant to salt water. They can remain in salt water for up to one year and continue to function after the equipment is retrieved from the sea. Thanks to the slim design, the tag can be integrated directly into ropes or nets or simply applied to fishing cages.

RFID tracking encourages fishermen to be even more careful with equipment. Avoiding shrinkage is a significant benefit, as acquisition costs for new equipment are generally quite high. Fishermen therefore save money through the solution and at the same time contribute to environmental protection. In addition, fishermen are assisted in the disposal and recycling of old equipment. Inventory management for fishing supplies as a whole is simplified.

Sustainability and environmental protection are an essential part of Axem Technology's corporate philosophy. Ghost nets are one of the most polluting forms of waste in the oceans. They cause longterm damage and this must be prevented. With this solution, we are also contributing to research into the extent of the problem. After all, thanks to our RFID solution, shrinkage is now accurately recorded and the retrieval of lost equipment is accelerated. Negative environmental impacts are minimized and fishermen are being assisted. The project is therefore exactly in line with Axem Technology's values for more sustainability and innovative environmental protection.

The RFID tag for use in fishing is one of the latest RFID innovations designed by Axem Technology.

The RFID tag for use in fishing is one of the latest RFID innovations designed by Axem Technology.

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