Ghost fishing is when lost or abandoned fishing gear, including nets, traps, crab pots and hooks continue to trap, injure and kill fish, sea turtles, seabirds and other marine life. The fishermen who once controlled this gear have long since gone home and yet their gear continues to trap and kill marine life. And yet the nets sail on through the waters, trapping sea life, starving it, strangling it, sinking with its weight and wrapping around coral reefs causing more havoc, dumping its load over time and floating back up to renew its cycle of death and destruction. And because they are made of synthetic grade-resistant materials, they can remain active in the water for hundreds of years.
A report issued jointly by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the UN Environment Program (UNEP), estimates that 640,000 tons of abandoned nets are spread across the world’s oceans, comprising up to a staggering 10 percent of oceanic litter. And the Northwest Straits Marine Conservative Initiative estimates that abandoned fishing gear kills over a half million sea-creatures each year just in the Puget Sound. Aided with state funding they have so far removed 4,500 nets, 3,081 crab pots, and 47 shrimp pots. Most projects are smaller and localized group efforts. The Olive Ridley Project has freed 51 endangered turtles trapped or injured in nets in the Maldives since 2010.
The term for this gear among those who work in marine life is ‘derelict fishing gear’ and includes sunken and abandoned ships as well. There are literally thousands of vessels lining the entries to waterways, on beaches and sunken far below the water’s surface. These too contain many possibilities for entrapment and death.
Concerned about this, a band of divers from the Netherlands began an organization called to clean up shipwrecks in the North Sea. They named it Ghost Fishing. It has grown into a global network of conservation groups interested in saving marine life and become common vernacular to describe this deadly ongoing phenomenon.
The other side of ghost fishing
The other component of ghost fishing is done unwittingly by those who may never have thought of fishing. Ghost fishing also refers to the injury and death of sea life and sea birds by solid trash. Picture the seabird suffocated by the shiny beer tab he tried to eat, the sea turtle strangled by the plastic coke coil or the flounder attracted to the bright blue bit of plastic that will pierce his gut. None of these bits of trash will biodegrade in less than 600 years.
In May 2010 the California Lost Fishing Gear Recovery Project removed 650 discarded toilets and automobile tires weighing almost 20 tons from a rocky reef at Point Dume, Malibu.
No one has any idea how much solid waste is in the oceans and the waterways, just that it is a lot and is causing immeasurable problems to marine life and the marine environment. And of course it continues to grow. A walk along almost any beach reveals an assortment of litter: aerosol cans, soda bottles, flip flops, sometimes broken and abandoned chairs and often suntan lotion bottles. Much of this is accidental trash or trash left by those who litter as a lifestyle. Consider too, the amount of trash swept into the oceans by tsunamis and hurricanes.
Most plastic does not biodegrade measurably; it just breaks into smaller pieces. Some sections of the oceans where the wind and waves work to bring piles of trash together sometimes clearly revealed at the surface have their own names like The Great Pacific Garbage Patch and the Western Garbage Patch. These patches of garbage have been found to actually contain the smallest bits of plastic, so that when the wind and waves take another current, they are submerged and not visible at all.
What is being done and why the problem still persists?
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration developed a Marine Debris Program in 2007 aimed at efforts toward awareness of the issue and cleanup. Initiatives include the obvious: organized ‘pick up trash’ efforts, programs to try to monitor and measure the debris so that efforts can be made to stop it at its source and awareness initiatives, like art contests and teaching materials for children.
They also work with fishermen to provide a place to dispose of fishing gear free of charge and they support technological advancements in fishing gear that can help prevent accidental loss. Many piers along America’s coastline have waste receptacles to encourage proper disposal of unwanted hooks and microfilament.
Fishermen do not appear to have much incentive to cooperate. It is easier to throw used filament in the ocean than deal with it on the boat and swapping out synthetic nets for heavier, biodegradable ones makes no economic sense. Some groups try to persuade them otherwise by citing a dollar amount of the damage to their pockets. For example it is estimated that one abandoned net can kill $20,000 Dungeness crabs in one year. And on a larger scale, experts estimate that lost tangle nets catch around 5 percent of total commercial catch globally.
Add to that marine life that has no commercial value and picture all of the life destroyed by ghost fishing.