The Silent Killer Strikes

Drifting along the ocean’s currents, I am a silent killer preying on the watery world’s inhabitants, not distinguishing between species or allowing for escape. I am a ghost net, abandoned by my users but I will continue to hunt and I will continue to kill.

The name ghost net is given to any commercial fishing gear either abandoned or accidentally left behind by a vessel. Whilst this could be due to bad weather, mistakes with setting them too high in the water leading to them being cut by propellors, accidental loss or having to be cut free for safety reasons, the outcome is always the same; they become a huge and a potentially deadly risk to all ocean life.

On the 13th June this year, it was reported that a group of dogfish were found entangled and dead in nets off a Plymouth Beach. Photographs taken by Sam Provstgaard Morys, who was out snorkeling at Rame Head, revealed the devastating impact the nets had cast upon the local sea life. The small sharks had become completely ensnared in the fishing gear, with clearly very little chance to escape, which ultimately led to their death by drowning as they were unable to swim. Likely to be females who would have played an important role in the continual survival of the local population. This catastrophic loss prompted the local campaign group ‘Rame Peninsula Beach Care’ to encourage fishermen to inform them of any net loss, so divers have the opportunity to try and retrieve them, and subsequently limit the loss of life. Certainly, this is a vital aspect of marine conservation, and a huge step in reducing the deadly effect of ghost nets, but it is equally important to note the following:

This is not a UK-centric problem; ghost nets are a global crisis.

Accounting for approximately 10% of all marine debris, ghost nets impact our oceans around the world. Often travelling for vast distances on the ocean currents, trapping an insurmountable amount of marine life, it is estimated that around 64,000 tonnes of netting are left each year continuing to trap, maim and kill for a long time after their initial use. Coral reefs, sharks, seals, birds, sea lions, turtles, cetaceans, crustaceans and so many other species are all affected, each in different but equally devastating ways. Whales, for example, may find themselves tangled up in ropes and nets, the thick long-lasting synthetic fibres digging further and further into their bodies. This causes intense pain, and the abandoned gear prevents the whale from feeding and moving properly, severely impacting their life over a considerable amount of time, possibly even years. Seals, on the other hand, may find themselves trapped in nets unable to surface to breathe, panicking whilst they struggle to escape for that much needed breath before succumbing to death by drowning in minutes.

Sadly, it appears as though some species of marine life encounter ghost gear on a regular basis – a sad reflection of the impact that humans are having upon the environment. For example, scars studied on large whale species suggest that entanglement is incredibly common, with an estimated 48-65% of humpback whales living in the Gulf of Maine having experienced entanglement at some stage during their lives. It is heartbreaking to see the impact we are having on these creatures.

So what can be done to help?

As ghost nets are such a widespread issue, it is clear that a general course of action is needed. Several projects around the world have already been established in order to try to reduce ghost gear impacts on wildlife, including the Olive Ridley Project created by Martin Stelfox in the Maldives. Martin, a marine biologist, saw the effect that ghost gear was having upon the marine world after discovering an endangered Olive Ridley turtle entangled in a net and missing its front flippers. In order to try to prevent further unnecessary destruction, he set up the project to train volunteers to report ghost nets, rescue any wildlife, and collect data needed to locate the origin of the nets. In a single year, 140 entangled turtles were recorded along with numerous other species including a sperm whale and four reef manta rays, as well as over 100 ghost nets.

As successful as these projects are, it is important to remember the problems that we face when trying to make a difference. For example, there is still a need for further data collection to establish the impact that ghost netting has both environmentally and economically as it’s still relatively unknown. Whilst some areas have been studied intensively, others have not which means that it is still not necessarily clear which areas are suffering the most. Other issues linked with data collection include the differences in regulations across different countries, such as catch limits and attitudes towards gear disposal, as this makes it hard to compare any results.

Location, as previously mentioned, is another significant problem faced by those studying the impacts of ghost gear. This is because the nets are often caught in currents and drift over vast distances into other ocean territories, impacting those who did not contribute to the issue. This is definitely a problem in Australia, where around 90% of ghost nets drifting into the Gulf of Carpentaria in the north of the country actually originate from Asian waters. In a bid to make a difference, it is obvious that we need to work together globally to be successful in this aim. In 2015, World Animal Protection launched the first cross-sector alliance, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, which brings together people from different sectors with varying ideas to solve the ongoing problem of lost or abandoned fishing gear. It is hoped that by building a worldwide network of people driving for change, the threat of worldwide ghost nets will be reduced.

Another idea for reducing problems caused by drifting nets is the concept of ‘gear marking’, allowing for the identification of nets and other equipment lost at sea. This will be discussed at the Committee of Fisheries in Rome, who are meeting in July 2016. Not only would this mean that gear could be traced back to the perpetrator, but illegal fishing thought to be responsible for a significant part of the ghost net problem, could also be combated.

Despite the challenges faced by those driving for a solution to the problem of lost and abandoned nets and other fishing gear, it appears that we no longer have a choice if we want to retain our amazing marine world and the life it encompasses. On average, in the English Channel and Western Approaches, five nets are lost per year, each measuring c.12 km, with only 50% recovered. Off the coast of Cornwall, a total of 24 km of nets were lost per year and only one third were recovered. Both of these areas are very small, and yet will have such a significant impact on so many things. If this is the case in the UK, then just imagine the damage the entire world is facing. It’s time something changed.

Ghost nets cost our economy from loss of fishing, and to clean up and repair, and they cost the lives of so many marine creatures. They are silent killers and we need to speak up on behalf of the wildlife and the people who suffer. We need to make a change.


Image: Doug Helton , NOAA/NOS/ORR/ERD


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