The past few months have shown us just how devastating ocean plastics can be to marine life, causing many of us, including the Queen, to wage war on plastics such as straws, microbeads, and carrier bags. But lost and discarded fishing gear contributes too, with a whopping 640,000 tonnes (700,000 tons) added to the seas each year.
And this “ghost” fishing gear doesn’t just add to plastic pollution. It also damages coral reefs and traps vast numbers of sea creatures, from whales and dolphins to birds and turtles, which once entangled, generally cannot escape.
According to the new report titled Ghosts beneath the waves, conducted by World Animal Protection, ghost gear is “a problem that spells catastrophe for marine life as we know it”. The authors also note that “the vast majority of entanglements cause serious harm or death”, while “swallowing remnants from ghost gear leads to malnutrition, digestive blockages, poor health, and death.” Worryingly, the plastics in ghost gear take 600 years to decompose.
As well as harming wildlife, ghost fishing equipment also impacts the food we eat by killing a huge amount of seafood that would otherwise be caught by fisheries. According to the report, “there is a great risk that our oceans could simply stop providing for humans in the many ways we now rely on them.”
But at the same time, it is the fisheries that contribute to this terrible problem. The new study found that one particular deep-water fishery in the northeast Atlantic lost or discarded as many as 25,000 nets each year.
The team behind the report investigated 15 of the world’s leading seafood suppliers in terms of their handling of ghost gear, placing them in one of five categories. Depressingly, none of the suppliers were placed in the top two categories, while 10 were placed in the worst, with the researchers finding “no evidence” that tackling ghost gear was even on their agenda.
But World Animal Protection is providing solutions. They have created the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), which aims to develop solutions to the issue of ghost fishing equipment. Their solutions include retrieving and recycling fishing gear, manufacturing biodegradable equipment, and marking fishing nets as this can reduce the frequency with which they are discarded.
And there are already success stories. For example, in Pakistan, the Olive Ridley Project, which is named after the turtle species most affected by ghost gear, has trained local divers to recover lost fishing gear and educated fishermen on its impacts. Money from recycled gear has already been invested back into the community.
While much more needs to be done to reduce the vast quantities of fishing gear lost at sea, hopefully, with projects like the GGGI, positive results can be achieved.