The Ghosts That Haunt Our Oceans

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A new campaign aims to return gear dumped into the world’s oceans – a catastrophic hazard for sea life – to the source, writes Nicola Beynon.

Long after its initial use, lost fishing gear persists in the world’s oceans, for hundreds of years. It may travel vast distances and is found in every ocean and sea on earth. These lost, abandoned, or otherwise derelict fishing nets – known ominously as “ghost gear” – add to the perils for animals in the ocean.

Every lost fishing net is a floating death trap. Hundreds of thousands of animals are killed every year by the approximately 640,000 tons of gear that are left in the world’s oceans. World Animal Protection estimates entanglement in ghost gear kills at least 136,000 seals, sea lions, and large whales every year. An inestimable number of birds, turtles, fish, and other marine species are injured and killed too.

Just last week, Australian authorities pulled a 2km, five-ton ghost net out of the Gulf of Carpentaria, a hot spot for both ghost nets and endangered marine turtles. If left to drift it would have entangled hundreds of turtles over its life. Once entangled, marine life can drown within minutes or endure long, slow deaths lasting months, or even years.

Adult northern gannet (morus bassanus) on RSPB Grassholm Island entangled in marine litter, hanging from a cliff adge and struggling with discarded ghost fishing gear tied in knots around its neck
Adult northern gannet (morus bassanus) on RSPB Grassholm Island entangled in marine litter, hanging from a cliff adge and struggling with discarded ghost fishing gear tied in knots around its neck

Ghost gear is a problem without simple villains or easy solutions. Gear loss is most often caused by commonplace occurrences, such as extreme weather, strong currents, or gear conflicts between active trawlers and static nets. Further complicating this issue is the fact that ghost gear often travels long distances from its point of origin, meaning those who are impacted are often not instigators of the problem. This is a particular issue in northern Australia where 90 per cent of the nets washing into the Gulf of Carpentaria have drifted in from SE Asian waters.

The transnational nature of the ghost gear problem means that global, collaborative solutions are imperative to solving it. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative, the world’s first cross-sectoral alliance dedicated to driving solutions to the problem of lost and abandoned fishing gear. It was launched by World Animal Protection in 2015 with participants from the fishing industry, the private sector, civil society, governments and intergovernmental organisations including Australia’s Northern Prawn Fishery, GhostNets Australia, Young’s Seafood, Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme and the US Government’s NOAA’s Marine Debris Program.

Solutions to ghost gear will also be on the agenda at the July 2016 meeting of the Committee on Fisheries (COFI) in Rome, a subsidiary body of the UN’s FAO Council – a major meeting on the global fisheries management calendar held every two years. A crucial aspect of solutions proposed will include prioritising the marking of fishing gear. While seemingly simple, gear marking has the potential to be a game changer. Enabling recovered gear to be tracked back and returned to its source.

Gear marking would also help to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing, known as IUU fishing, which threatens ocean ecosystems around the world. Finding and implementing sustainable solutions to such a complex problem is difficult – but it’s also an opportunity to shape a better future for marine industries and animals alike.

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Nicola Beynon

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