There’s nothing quite like the beach, standing on the shore with the sun on your shoulders, burying your feet in the hot sand, letting the cool water wash over your legs as you stare at the open blue horizon. We are connected to the coast and ocean. Whether or not we are among the over 50% of the population who live within 50 miles of the coast, we are all dependent on our coasts and ocean for our food, health, recreation and jobs.
But do you know ? An estimated 50-80% of all life on earth is found under the ocean surface and the oceans contain 99% of the living space on the planet. But now our beautiful ocean is getting haunted by the “Ghost Net”.
Ghost nets are not supernatural, but they are genuinely terrifying. Ghost nets are fishing nets that are left or lost by fishermen in the ocean. Such nets are often left tangled on a coral reef or floating in the open sea, which are almost invisible in the dim light. Once left these abandoned nets starts entangling fish, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, dugongs, crocodiles, seabirds, crabs, rays, bony fish, whales, crustaceans, birds and other creatures, including occasional human divers.
Acting as intended, the nets restrict movement, causing starvation, laceration and infection, and suffocation of those who need to return to the surface to breathe. Ghost nets cause further damage by entanglement of live coral, smothering reefs and the introduction of parasites and invasive species into reef environments.
The deadly effects of ghost nets can be felt far from their origin. Ghost nets float through ocean currents for years, or even decades. While they flots great distances, they manage to catch and kill marine animals, in a process called “ghost hunting.”
Entanglement in ghost nets can lead to exhaustion, suffocation, starvation, amputations of limbs, and, eventually, the death of a marine animal. Entangled fish often act as bait, attracting larger predators such as turtles, sharks, and dolphins, which may themselves become entangled.
In addition, ghost nets have an impact on the sustainability of well-managed fisheries by damaging ships and killing economically valuable species. They also have an impact on the beauty of the coastline, resulting in expensive cleaning costs and financial losses for the tourism and diving industries.
The problem is not just nets, but ghost gear in general, like old-fashioned crab traps, without the appropriate “rot-out plate” even sitting on the bottom, where they become self-adhesive traps that capture crabs year after year. Even the balled-up fishing line can be lethal to a range of animals, including birds and marine mammals. Over time, the nets become more and more entangled.
Fishermen sometimes abandon worn-out nets because it is often the easiest way to get rid of them.
Destructive Fishing Techniques
A variety of fishing methods and practices are detrimental to the marine environment. For example they can cause overfishing, massive by-catch, destruction of the sea bottom, damage to coral reefs, and ghost fishing. Modern science has, of course, made many advancements, but it is difficult to predict the impact of the destruction of marine species. Trawling, the use of gillnets, purse seine and FADs (Fish Aggregating Devices) are some of the troublesome fishing practices that create ghost nets. On the other side, pole and line which is the main fishing technique in the Maldives, is a low-impact and sustainable fishing technique.
Many commercial fishermen use gillnets. These are suspended in the sea by floating buoys, such as glass floats, along the edges. In this way, they can build a vertical wall that is hundreds of meters wide, where any fish within a certain size can be captured. Usually, these nets are gathered by the fishermen and the catch is removed. If this is not done, the net can continue to catch fish until the weight of the catch exceeds the buoyancy of the floats. The net then sinks, and the fish is devoured by bottom-dwelling crustaceans and other fishes. Then the floats will bring the net up again, and the cycle will continue.
Ghost nets are also a major contributor to the ocean plastics crisis. Most modern nets are made of nylon or other plastic compounds that can last for centuries. According to a 2018 study in Scientific Reports, ghost nets makeup at least 46 percent of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Those abandoned fishing lines and nets that do breakdown naturally never go away, they just become smaller pieces of plastic. Marine animals mistake this micro-plastic for food and eat it, which can harm internal organs, keep them from eating, and expose them to toxic chemicals.
Improper Fishing Practices
Commercial fishing nets could become ghost nets when not well secured to marker buoys and sinks, or when waves and tides drag them during storms and extreme weather. Nets can also be lost accidentally after being cut in half by a boat’s propeller, rocks or other obstacles, or intentionally when fishermen need to return to port quickly due to malfunctioning equipment or bad weather.
Unfortunately, and in most instances, uneducated individuals simply discard old or damaged fishing nets into the ocean without understanding their effects on the ecosystem. It is always easier to get rid of a useless and discarded fishing gear by dumping it into the ocean, but ironically sooner or later, the death or contamination of fish will ruin the lives of the fishermen itself.
Ghost Nets are often taken by oceanic currents and travel huge distances. It means their detrimental effects can be prevalent far from their original point of entry into the water.
It will require commitment, cooperation and innovation to exorcise ghost nets from our oceans. WWF, Ghost Fishing or Ghostnet Australia is among a number of groups working to remove ghost nets from the sea. They work with local fishermen and governments to identify target areas and eliminate as many nets as possible. A single Baltic Sea WWF-led expedition hauled up 268 tons of nets, ropes and other material in 2015.
In order to stop these nets from becoming ghosts in the first place, it is necessary that fishing gear can be traced to its owner so that any dumping nets can be fined and also refundable deposits should be made using nets to encourage return or recycling rather than littering. NGOs like wwf also help with tools like sonar reflectors that can make ghost nets easier to find and work with small-scale fisheries to develop more sustainable fishing gear and practices. By tackling this problem from all sides, together with conservation partners, fishers and supporters, we can banish ghost nets and protect our oceans.
Are you willing to help with that? Make sure you catch any discarded fishing net you can find on your local beach. However, wherever possible, promote the use of fish brands that follow sustainable fishing practices.
Remember that every act helps in the effort to conserve the health of our oceans. Our future depends on a clean and healthy ocean, where protection and sustainable use go hand in hand. The ocean is under threat from the effects of climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity and unsustainable use. Safeguarding the ocean for future generations is a shared responsibility and a matter of global urgency.