Ghost Nets: The Invisible Killer

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Abandoned fishing gear trap, maim, and kill hundreds of marine animals daily. Viewed from below, discarded nets appear as veil walls lightly dancing in the currents with a serene and silent intent, reaping the ocean’s bounty the world over. Ever since nets began to be cast out at sea eons ago, more and more fishing gear has been entering our oceans daily. And much of this remains in the water — lost, torn away, or simply abandoned.

Abandoned fishing gear devours sealife with insatiable hunger. To a number of conservationists, these derelict nets are darkly referred to as ‘ghost gear’. In more technical terms, it can be called Abandoned, Lost, or Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG).

ALDFG functions in a number of ways. Floating nets wander around, collecting a plethora of organisms, and eventually sink under the weight. As this biomass breaks apart in the ocean’s benthic regions, the nets shake their load and lumber upwards again, ready to wreak more havoc. Some nets and lines wrap themselves on reefs, shipwrecks, or rocks, ensnaring marine animals, maiming, drowning or simply starving hundreds of thousands of them. Pots intended for crab, lobster, and shrimp see an eclectic range of visitors. Entire crab or lobster lineages, scavenging bottom dwellers that venture inside for a hapless predecessor’s remains, perish in these traps.

Abandoned gear makes no distinctions, capturing marine mammals, fish, turtles, whales, birds, sharks, rays, and invertebrates. To combat the problem, an organisation called Ghost Fishing arose from a hardy band of clean-up divers in the North Sea. The group started out clearing shipwrecks near their native Netherlands. Now, it’s grown into a global network of cleanup groups, working with organisations such as the European Centre for Nature Conservation.

Cas Renooij, director of Ghost Fishing, explains how the organisation began. “About five years back some people in the Netherlands started to clean up nets from wrecks. It turned into an environmental attempt to not just make the wrecks more attractive, but also to prevent fish from dying in those nets. Later in the process it became a number one priority.” Abandoned fishing gear has become a global problem. One report estimates that 640 000 tons of such abandoned nets are spread across the world’s oceans, comprising up to a staggering 10 percent of oceanic litter. In the Puget Sound alone, derelict fishing gear kills over half a million sea creatures each year, according to a Northwest Straits Marine Conservation Initiative estimate.

Fifty or sixty years ago, nets were commonly made from biodegradable hemp or cotton. With the advent of synthetic, degrade-resistant materials such as nylon, nets now can remain active in the water for hundreds of years. Some plastics can remain in the marine environment for up to 600 years. When gear finally does break apart, further damage is done when marine animals eat plastic particles and polyurethane chemicals leach into the water.

After seeing the destruction caused by abandoned gear, Ghost Fishing began reaching out for help worldwide. “We looked around to see if there were more initiatives like this in the world, and we actually found some. We also found out there was no connection between them. That’s why we came up with the Ghost Fishing network. We reach out to those groups to give them a platform to get stories told, and raise awareness for the problem. We did some research and found that it wasn’t just a local problem, but a global problem,” says Renooij.

Divers and conservationists worldwide are now tackling their own localised projects. Since 2010, the Olive Ridley Project freed and rehabilitated 51 endangered turtles trapped or injured in nets in the Maldives, illustrating how such gear puts added strain on an already endangered species. In Mediterranean waters off the Turkish coast, a cleanup effort to rehabilitate ecosystems damaged by ALDFG is currently underway. Ghost Nets Australia has a partnership with indigenous groups working in the area to remove ALDFG.

This article originally appeared on the website of US environmental magazine Earth Island Journal


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