Ghostbusting – Tackling the Problem of Abandoned Fishing Gear

First of all our supermarket plastic bags were taxed, then cosmetics crammed with microbeads were axed before straws and cotton buds were targeted. Many of the goods we buy are under scrutiny from the media as the iconic image of a seahorse carrying a cotton bud wrapped around its tail multiplies in the news. Yet when we look at statistics, lost fishing gear accounts for 46% of plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Whilst we cannot say that our household waste is not immensely contributing to the litter cast along our shores, long lost fishing nets form an enormous source of pollution while somehow escaping the brunt of public outrage. It’s time to bring this issue to the surface and untangle what is really happening.

While some nets, pots and traps are understandably lost to the power of the waves which sweep across our oceans as thundering walls of swirling white water, some fishermen decide to cast cumbersome nets overboard with each trip as their immense size means less room for precious and profitable fish. While in the fisherman’s view these nets have reached the end of their useful life, they actually continue to ghost fish for years to come, with some types of monofilament line taking up to 500 years to decompose. 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enters our beautiful waters each year and these items are not happy to simply retire, instead they continue to entangle and kill marine life, smother ecosystems and act as navigational hazards to boats.

There are several types of net used within the industry, each poses a slightly different threat but inevitably results in the same tragic ending. Trawling is a commonly known method where nets weighted with heavy rolls of metal are dragged along the seafloor, destroying 20% of all flora and fauna which may be in its path within one trawl, be that seagrass, coral or turtles. One boat found that for every pound of targeted sole they caught, 16 pounds of unintended bycatch was also pulled up, only to be dumped back overboard before docking at port.

Drift nets are large stretches of net which hang in a vertical wall near the surface of the ocean, often deemed the ‘curtain of death’ as they wait for unsuspecting fish to swim straight into them. These nets can be left in place for anywhere from a few hours to several days. In 1983, Greenpeace staged the first intervention to prevent a damaging drift net from being deployed by a Japanese vessel in the Bering Strait. Filming their heroic siege, they exposed the accidentally tangled porpoises and seabirds amongst the desired fish, meaning that within a year, America had banned Japan from fishing in their waters in the Bering Strait. By 1992, the UN nations had limited the length of drift nets to 2.5 kilometres to reduce population declines as cod alone has decreased by 86% in the last century, making our weekend fish and chips not quite so harmless. Yet still illegal use of drift nets remains, some stretching up to an astonishing 20 kilometres, ensnaring endangered species such as the blue shark. Other complying fishermen have turned to long line fishing, a single line as opposed to a net which can stretch for up to an astounding 100 kilometres while being covered in thousands of baited hooks. While this is better for our playful dolphins, diving birds such as gannets take advantage of free-floating food only to become stuck on the hooks or with wings tangled amongst the almost invisible line. Once creatures become stuck, they struggle to hunt for food while becoming incredibly easy prey themselves as ever-tightening ropes restrict their movement. Across the globe, a cetacean accidentally caught as bycatch dies every two minutes and this rate steeply climbs once we account for sharks, turtles and seabirds too.

Stubbornly jutting out away from the foot of Britain is the rugged county of Cornwall, where grey seals can commonly be spotted eyeing up the strange human activities taking place on the land. The UK is home to 40% of the world’s grey seal population with Cornwall providing several key colonies. Despite being a protected species, it is hard to defend these cheeky creatures from plastic which traverses the sea without bounds, giving Cornwall one of the highest seal entanglement rates in the world. Inquisitive pups nudge plastic rings and rope which only tighten their grip as the seals grow meaning some fail to reach the age of reproduction, leaving behind a dwindling population. Recently, a seal washed up on a quiet north coast cove was found to be dragging an appalling 35 kilograms of fish netting from its neck, leaving it unable to eat or stay above the surface. This has been named one of the worst entanglement cases seen worldwide due to the body damage caused, however there are so many cases of ghost fishing which we don’t see due to the vast size of the ocean and its inaccessibility. We simply cannot help those that live in the isolated depths.

Yet there are things you can do at home that the divers and rescuers of this poor seal desperately want you to start doing. You can simply start by picking up any pieces of litter you find wandering the beach, while just pulling heavy pieces of netting safely out of the tide’s reach could really make a difference to local wildlife. These large nets are repeat offenders which easily impact not just multiple individuals but multiple species. You can also save hotline numbers to your phone so you are always ready to act. In Cornwall, the organisations Fathoms Free and Ghostbusters are both working to reduce ghost fishing by conducting beach cleans, paddle cleans even dive cleans to remove what they can before recycling the material into anything from clothes to kayaks. These types of organisations are setting up all over the globe so be sure to find one near you whilst also saving the phone number for local stranding networks which act as an emergency service for stranded, entangled or injured marine mammals. Just a quick phone call can turn the helpless you perched atop a crumbling clifftop to a literal lifesaver, leaving you walking home filled with happiness as the image of a newly freed creature replays in your mind. Other things you can do for a long term impact include writing to MPs to push for greater fishing gear disposal schemes as currently only 1.5% is recycled while financial incentives are having to be implemented to get fishermen to dispose of their immense waste properly.

While sometimes this may feel futile, there has been a lot of change to legislation to increase protection to both fish stocks and the wider environment. Some governments are paying fishermen to collect any abandoned nets they find along with floating plastic while trackers are increasingly being placed on gear to allow companies to pick up any accidentally lost items. Measures which may be implemented in the future include compulsory inventories on ships which document exactly what plastic they set sail with to make sure they return with the same load while extended producer responsibility aims to make the manufacturers accountable for hazardous ocean debris.

Acting in your local area at home can really make a difference with issues such as ocean plastic as anything from bottles to fishing nets can be carried by currents thousands of miles across the globe, meaning your one small action could save multiple creatures which live far from the blue horizon you see from the shore. For water users, these actions can even benefit you as the perils of netting don’t discriminate between animals, boats, kayaks or swimmers. So let’s not give up the ghost in our sustainable pursuits, let’s just give up the ghost nets.

By Neve McCracken-Heywood

Rory Sinclair