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Most People Have Never Heard About The Dangers of "Ghost Fishing"

November 20, 2013

Story at-a-glance

  • “Ghost fishing” is a term that describes what happens when lost or abandoned fishing nets and other gear are left behind in the ocean. The nets trap fish, kill marine mammals, smother habitat and pose navigation hazards.
  • According to the NOAA’s National Ocean Service, this derelict fishing gear is one of the primary types of debris impacting our marine environment today.
  • Fortunately, a global network of volunteer divers has taken on the challenge of trying to clean up the mess left behind by abandoned fishing nets and other gear. The work is extremely difficult, often frustrating, and always dangerous, and should be attempted by only the most highly skilled divers.
  • One group of volunteers from the Los Angeles area is pushing for a state law that would require fishing boats to report lost nets immediately. The sooner abandoned nets are recovered, the less impact they have on the ocean environment and its inhabitants.
  • Each of us can do our part to help preserve marine ecosystems by learning about the issues facing the ocean and its inhabitants, and by being conscious consumers and responsible advocates.

By Dr. Becker

Many people have never heard the term ghost fishing. According to the website of the same name:

"Ghost fishing is a term that describes what happens when derelict fishing gear ‘continues to fish.’"

Fishing nets left behind in the ocean predictably twist and tangle up over time, trapping fish and killing dolphins, sea lions and other marine mammals. Among the casualties of these nets are some of the world’s most endangered species, including the Hawaiian Monk Seal, Kemp’s Ridley Turtle, and Fraser’s Dolphin.

The nets and other gear also smother habitat and pose a hazard to ocean navigation. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) National Ocean Service, “Derelict fishing gear, such as nets or taps and pots, is one of the main types of debris impacting the marine environment today.”

Global Network of Volunteer Divers Works to Clean Up the Mess

Fortunately, a worldwide network of highly skilled volunteer divers makes it their business to try to clean up the mess created by abandoned nets and other fishing gear.

According to Pascal van Erp, founder of the Netherlands-based organization Ghost Fishing, “It is very important to show the world how big the problem is. There are lots of nets out in the oceans. For years, nobody cared about it.”

van Erp heads up a team of 30 to 40 volunteer divers. Just in the last three years, they have made 100 dives and removed 10 tons of netting and other fishing gear from the North Sea. The fishing nets the divers recover are recycled into socks and other materials.

Ghost Fishing teams are very much at the mercy of the weather. Because of the strong waves in the North Sea, van Erp and his team can only dive from May to September.

Another challenge is the inherent danger of the work. Heather Hamza volunteers with about 50 other very advanced divers for a group called the Los Angeles Underwater Explorers that works off the coast of Southern California. Hamza says ghost fishing jobs are the most difficult dives she does. The hazards include silt that limits visibility, getting tangled in the old nets, and most serious of all -- the risk of getting caught up in the lift bags used to bring the fishing nets to the surface. The bags are brought up quickly – much faster than divers can safely swim to the surface -- and a diver caught up in one could become very ill or even die.

The work can be slow going. “Sometimes I feel like I’m cleaning the beach with a teaspoon,” says Hamza.

The Los Angeles Underwater Explorers are hoping to see a state law passed that will require fishing boats to report lost nets immediately. The sooner discarded nets are collected, the easier the clean-up process.

How You Can Help Preserve Our Oceans

National Geographic offers the following suggestions:

  • Make safe, sustainable seafood choices. Learn which species are overexploited and consider choosing seafood that is both clean and sustainable.
  • Cut down on plastic products. Plastic that ends up in the ocean contributes to habitat destruction and kills tens of thousands of marine animals each year. Consider a reusable water bottle, non-disposable food containers, and reusable shopping bags. Recycle whenever possible.
  • Help take care of the beaches you visit. Clean up after yourself whenever you spend time at the beach. Explore the ocean without interfering with wildlife or removing rocks and coral.
  • Travel the ocean responsibly. Be a responsible boater, skier, swimmer, surfer. Never throw anything overboard, and be aware of marine life in the waters around you.
  • Don’t buy products that exploit marine life. For example: coral jewelry, tortoiseshell hair accessories, and shark products.
  • Be an ocean-conscious pet owner. If you feed your pet fish, make safe, sustainable choices. Don’t flush cat litter. Don’t keep wild-caught saltwater fish in your home aquarium, and never release aquarium fish into the ocean or any natural body of water.
  • Consider supporting an organization that is working to protect the ocean. You can either make a financial donation, or if you live near the coast, you can join a local group and donate your time or expertise to projects close to home.
  • Influence change in your community. Research the opinions of your public officials before you vote, or contact your local representatives to let them know you support marine conservation projects.

All life on this planet is connected to the ocean and its inhabitants. The more you learn about the issues facing this vital system, the more you’ll want to help ensure its health—then share that knowledge to educate and inspire others.

 
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