Floating fields of garbage are now a common sight as people dump waste into the oceans. Previous reports have shown that the largest buoyant garbage dump is in the Pacific Ocean, where trash, plastic, discarded fishing gear, and debris from natural disasters are usually seen. All of these pose a tremendous danger to marine life and our environment.
The oceans are also littered with what’s become known as “ghost fishing gear.” This refers to lost, abandoned, or discarded fishing implements, including nets, traps, pots, and lines, that are left in the ocean. Often, these gears are lost during storms or in strong currents, or after becoming entangled with traps set along the seafloor by other fishermen. Although they were already lost or abandoned, they continue to fish for many years—hence the term “ghost fishing.”
Ghost Fishing: Facts and Statistics
Ghost nets have become a major problem for marine life. These and other waste end up in our oceans mainly because of human activities and the fishing industry. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Marine Debris Program reported that some of the reasons fishing gear go ghost include gear overuse; fishing during poor weather; gear getting snagged on obstructions on the seafloor (mountains, shipwrecks, etc.); conflicts with other fishing operations, and an excess of gear in play.
It is estimated that about 600,000 to 800,000 tons of fishing equipment are abandoned in the oceans every year. That equipment can continue to trap fish, mammals, and crustaceans for up to 30 years, and can last in the sea for up to 600 years. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, the thousands of tons of discarded fishing gear account for a large portion of the plastic waste in marine ecosystems.
Ghost nets can also reach far places as ocean currents can carry them long distances. For instance, it is estimated that 95% of the nets that wash ashore in Australia come from other countries. Scientists also believe that abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear accounts for about 10% of all marine debris across the world. The amount of these have grown substantially for the past decades as the scale of commercial fishing has increased along with long-lasting synthetic gear being introduced in the harvesting processes.
Ghost fishing gear has wreaked havoc in marine animals as they are all vulnerable to entanglement. There’s also a huge possibility that they will suffocate, starve, get trapped, or get injured as they are entangled. Studies show that a single net can take out an entire coral reef, killing the animals that live there and wiping out the habitat of many others.
The World Wildlife (WWF) also revealed that ghost nets are a major contributor to the ocean plastic crisis. According to Bracenet, an online site that aims to start conversations about conserving our environment, ghost nets account for 30% to 50% of all plastic waste in the oceans. For instance, about 46 % of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch northeast of Hawaii consists of old fishing nets—equivalent to more than four times the size of Germany and consists of more than 80,000 tons of plastic.
Most of the modern nets being used today are made of nylon or other plastic compounds that can last for centuries. Unfortunately, the abandoned fishing lines and nets just become smaller pieces of plastic—they never go away. Often, marine animals mistake microplastics for food and eat them. Studies show that the world’s oceans hold 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic, some of it floats on the surface, but “some four billion plastic microfibers per square kilometer are suspended below.”
Preventing Ghost Fishing
Many international organizations have already outlined practical measures aiming to curb ghost gear. This includes providing incentives for fishermen to report lost equipment and retrieve nets they find at sea and educating the fishing industry about the problem. Several governments have also initiated in establishing collection facilities at each port to help fishermen to dispose of old, damaged or retrieved gear quickly and safely, ready for recycling.
“Through removal of ghost nets, we hope not only to help conserve corals but also to support the small-scale fishermen who depend mainly on the reef-associated fishery resources for their livelihoods,” Edward Patterson, director of the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute, said.
Technology is also being utilized to address this concern. For instance, experts at SINTEF, Norway’s biggest research institute, developed small locator cards that can be attached to nets so they can be found using sonar if they get lost. Named PingMe, this device reflects signals from a tag attached to an object such as a fishing net. It uses no energy to send out its own signal, and can, therefore, function for a long time,” Odd Trandem of SINTEF said.
Developer Dr. Tone Berg decided to invent this device after seeing a photograph of a marine turtle entangled in a green net mesh. “What if these nets, pots and other gear could be tagged so that it would be easy for us to find them again? Ghost fishing is not only a threat to the environment. The loss of such equipment represents a major financial loss to the fisheries sector – on top of the lost catches involved,” he said.
According to Telegraph, a national British daily broadsheet newspaper published in London, PingMe had worked well when it was tested in Blaklidammen Lake in Trondheim. It can locate the net as long as the searcher is within 1,600 feet (500 meters). “Our aim is to bring the technology to the market, starting with the fisheries sector. But we’ve also identified many other applications, including in the offshore sector,” Dr. Berg added.
Many organizations are also working hard to banish ghost nets from local waters. A 2016 report showed that the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) was able to identify 17 preventative methods to avoid, minimize or eliminate fishing gear being abandoned, lost, or discarded in our oceans and seas. One of them is using Deep Trekker’s Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) which can safely assist in reducing marine debris, helping to restore the health of fragile open water ecosystems and improving the safe navigation of fishing grounds.