Stop Ghost Fishing!
Fishing nets and line that have been left or lost in the water by fishermen
Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) entangled in net and rope. Image credit: International Whaling Commission
Ghost Fishing is Killing Coastal Wildlife!
Ghost fishing is fishing gear that has been lost, dumped or abandoned, but continues to trap and kill wildlife. It includes fishing nets, traps, long lines, rope, or other gear that have been abandoned or lost in the ocean by fishermen. This gear, often nearly invisible in the dim light and murky waters of the ocean, can be left drifting in the open ocean until washed ashore or gathered. Ghost fishing gear will (it’s only a matter of time) trap animals, entangle and potentially kills marine life, smother habitat, and act as a hazard to navigation.
Approximately 640,000 tons of fishing gear are left in our oceans every year, according to World Animal Protection (WAP).
In some cases, illegal fishermen may be deliberately dumping their nets into the ocean to avoid getting caught. But most legally operating fishing vessels simply lose their gear due to poor weather, or because nets collide with boat propellers, rocks or other fishing vessels.
Left in the ocean, ghost nets become death traps for almost any animal that comes into contact with this long forgotten gear. The nets may wrap themselves around an animal’s body, and, in the case of a marine mammal or turtle, prevent an animal from returning to the surface to get air, causing the animal to slowly drown and die.
A single net found drifting in the North Pacific contained 99 dead seabirds, two dead sharks, and more than 200 fish of various species.
The scope of the problem is daunting. A 2009 United Nations study found that ghost-fishing gear makes up 10 percent, or about 640,000 tons, of marine litter worldwide. A recent study from NOAA estimates that more than 85,000 ghost lobster and crab traps are scattered through the Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary alone. The agency also reports that on a typical summer day there are 250,000 crab traps deployed on Chesapeake Bay. It estimates that Bay watermen in Chesapeake Bay lose 30 percent of the traps each season due to float lines being cut by propellers or chafed through by wave action or currents.
In July 2018, an approximately 30-foot-long juvenile whale was spotted in Raritan and Sandy Hook bays in New Jersey. The humpback whale had a piece of gill net, a type of netting used in commercial fishing, wrapped around its mouth forming a closed loop around its blowhole for several months. Members of the nonprofit Center for Coastal Studies' disentanglement team in Massachusetts arrived and used a custom-designed tool — a hook-shaped knife attached to a roughly 15-foot-long pole — to slice the piece of netting to free the whale.
Before the 1960s, nets were commonly made from biodegradable hemp or cotton. Then came synthetic, degrade-resistant materials such as nylon. Nowadays nets can remain active in the water for hundreds of years. Lost or abandoned nets will continue to carry out their capture processes. Invisibly, below the surface of the water, this life-threatening gear will entangle and trap fish, sharks, seabirds, dolphins, sea turtles, and other aquatic animals to kill them. This is ghost fishing - a deadly and horrible phenomenon by commercial and industrial fishing practices that must stop!
Recycling - One way to prevent derelict gear from becoming “ghost gear” is to have fishermen return their worn-out nets and traps to their port for recycling instead of dumping it into the ocean. The port of Wellfleet, Mass., has collected 367,000 pounds of old gear from fishermen since 2008. Other high-volume collection points are Newport, Ore. (352,480 pounds); New Bedford, Mass. (285,000 pounds); and Point Judith, R.I. (242,000 pounds). Recycling programs like this need to expand to other fishing ports.
Clean-ups - Another solution is for organizations to pick up derelict fishing gear from the water. For example, Healthy Seas, based in Europe, is sending divers out to recover ghost nets from the Adriatic and North seas, and has been scouting the Mediterranean Sea and the California coast for future cleanups. Healthy Seas says it recovers the nylon nets, cleans them of organic, plastic or metallic material, and recycles them into econyl, a regenerated nylon yarn. Manufacturers are using the yarn to produce apparel and other textiles — socks, underwear, swimming suits and carpet tiles. The organization recently enlisted the support of Norway’s Egersund Group, a global fishing supplier, as a ghost buster, raising awareness among fishermen of the need to properly dispose of derelict gear.
More Clean ups - In 2009, a group of divers created the Ghost Fishing Foundation, which brings scuba divers together to find and retrieve abandoned fishing gear. They started in the Dutch North Sea, recovering nets from the ocean floor, and some from ship wreckages. Sometimes they use large cranes to salvage especially large chunks of netting. They now have projects in other countries, like Belgium, Croatia, Malta and the United States.
Buy-Back Program - Create a buy-back program for marine debris. The Waste Fishing Gear Buy-back project has been implemented successfully in the Republic of Korea since 2003, aiming at collecting fisheries-related marine litter (such as fishing nets, traps, lines, floats) deposited in the sea and on the sea bed. Since fishermen used to collect waste fishing gear during fishing operation and throw it back into the sea, the buy-back project is especially designed to encourage fishermen to bring ashore the litter collected, as part of their fishing activities. This is achieved by providing large, hardwearing bags to the boats so that litter can be easily collected and deposited on land. An economic incentive is also given to fishers: when they bring back waste fishing gear collected during fishing operation to the designated place, it is purchased at the cost of approximately US$10 per 100 litre bag. The budget for this program is shared between federal and state governments.
Biodegradable fishing nets - A new study published in the journal Animal Conservation describes some promising tests done with biodegradable fishing nets. The researchers developed a net made of a blend of 82 percent polybutylene succinate (PBS) and 18 percent polybutylene adipate-co-terephthalate (PBAT) and compared its fishing efficiency with conventional nets. (If you can’t convince fishermen that these nets will do as good a job as regular, non-biodegradable nets, this is a pointless exercise.) During lab testing, the biodegradable nets had inferior theoretical performance to the regular nets (they had lower breaking strength and were stiffer), but during actual fishing they performed similarly to regular nylon monofilament nets and started to biodegrade after 24 months in seawater. This is only a first step. More testing needs to be done, and the biodegradable materials could no doubt be improved to better match the performance of conventional nets, but these tests were promising enough to show that this solution should be pursued further.