Deep below the surface of the ocean, countless marine creatures are being killed by an alien presence. This predator, new to the scene, is being unleashed in increasing and alarming numbers. Its destructive capabilities are indiscriminate and virtually unlimited. It has no appetite, so its hunger is never sated. It has no fear, and no natural predators. It kills slowly – entangling, ensnaring, and suffocating. No creature in the wild has natural defenses to cope with it, or destroy it. It cannot die – in fact, this killer is not unleashed until it meets the end of its life.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of tonnes of fishing gear are lost or discarded around the globe. Every year, millions of fish, sea turtles, marine mammals, and sea birds pay the price. Ghost gear, as it is known, was first raised as a concern back in the 1980s. The foreboding term refers to all fishing gear lost in storms, snagged on the rough ocean floor, or deliberately discarded by fishermen. No matter how ghost gear is lost to the sea, however, the outcome is the same –it is set loose on the ocean, killing anything that swims too close. Large, slow-moving creatures like sea turtles and whales are especially likely to be affected, and the World Cetacean Alliance has estimated that the average entangled whale drags 1.2 tonnes of fishing gear for months or even years before dying or getting free.
Not all ghosts are created equal, however – some types of gear are significantly more harmful than the rest. The two deadliest and most prevalent forms of ghost gear haunting our oceans are gillnets and traps. Gillnets are made to float unseen in the water column, weighted so that they stretch vertically downwards. Their monofilament fiber make-up makes them nearly impossible to see for passing fish and the seabirds that feed on them. Once gillnets become ghost gear, they can float undetected through the water for long periods of time – one recovered net was estimated to have been actively ghost fishing for 20 years. One recent study estimated that there were 85,000 ghost lobster and crab traps in the Florida Keys Marine Sanctuary alone. In areas where illegal and unregulated fishing are more prevalent, much more damaging ghost gear like gillnets and bottom trawl netting are unleashed in high quantities. Once in the water, ghost gear is there to stay. Estimates indicate that plastic fishing gear can persist in the environment for up to 600 years.
Marine creatures are not the only ones paying the price for ghost fishing – there are serious economic ramifications as well. Economic costs can be difficult to estimate and highly variable depending on location and type of fishery; however, studies have shown that ghost fishing is capable of having a significant impact on commercially viable species. For instance, in 2003, it was estimated that up to 30% of the potential Greenland halibut catch in Norway was lost to ghost fishing. Additionally, in 2011, it was estimated that ghost fishing accounted for a loss of $744,000 in the Dungeness crab fishery of Washington state.
Ghost gear is a problem of global proportions for sea life, fishermen, and the fishing industry alike, and coordinated, global responses are needed. Luckily, many enterprising organizations and initiatives have risen to the challenge. Around the world, people are finding lost gear, discovering innovative gear recycling methods, designing biodegradable traps, and turning gear into artwork and products like socks and carpet tiles. And in the last year, every one of these enterprising initiatives have been brought together to form a united, global front against the deadly menace of ghost gear. In 2012, World Animal Protection held a symposium to determine the greatest threats to animal welfare worldwide, and were alerted to the issues of gear entanglement. Three years later, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative was born. The GGGI bringstogether researchers, policy makers, and organizations providing solutions to highlight ghost gear hotspots and form the best plan of action. While ghost gear is still a huge threat to the ocean animals we know and love, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative appears to be rising to the challenge. Let’s hope that with a united, global effort, ghost gear can be laid to rest for good.
If you’d like to help out in the fight against ghost gear, sign up for Beachwatch and help clean up a beach near you:
For a recent story of fishermen helping out an entangled whale in distress, check out the link below:
For an interactive look at various ghost gear-fighting solutions all over the world, check out the map at the Global Ghost Gear Initiative’s website:
If you are super keen to dive right into the deep end and learn all there is too know about ghost fishing, have a look at the most current and in-depth report on ghost fishing: https://marinedebris.noaa.gov/impact-ghost-fishing-derelict-fishing-gear