What are ghost nets and what is the problem with them?

Ghost nets are commercial fishing nets that have been lost, abandoned, or simply discarded at sea. Every year millions of marine animals such as sharks, whales, fish, turtles, dolphins, and even birds get trapped and killed in ghost nets, often dying slow, painful deaths. They can also cause further damage to coral, reefs and introduce parasites or invasive species into reef environments which has devastating impacts on marine ecosystems. Not to mention that discarded nets contribute to pollution and accumulation of debris in our oceans, adding to high levels of microplastics and chemicals into the food web.

While you might not be familiar with the issue, it’s not new. Indeed, “ghost fishing” was first brought to the attention of the world at the 16th Session of the FAO Committee on Fisheries in April 1985. In 2009, due to the growing concern over the threat of ghost nets, the FAO Secretariat published an in-depth study of the problem which revealed that, it was already getting worse due to the increased scale of global fishing operations and the introduction of highly durable fishing gear made of long-lasting synthetic materials.

In the report, the FAO made different recommendations for tackling the problem of ghost nets (financial incentives, marking gear, new technologies, improving collection, disposal and recycling schemes, better reporting of lost gear…) and some ideas emerged through the years like the introduction of biodegradable fishing nets but again, the global scale of the problem and the multitude of stakeholders involved (e.g. international organizations, national government, the private sector, research institutions) make it very hard to put solutions in place to reduce the amount of ghost nets in our oceans.

Nearly ten years after this report, ghost nets are among the greatest killers in our oceans, and not only because of their large numbers but mostly due to the nature of the materials they are made of which can kill animals for multiple decades, when it’s not for several centuries….

In fact, we have seen first-hand the carnage that these ghost nets are causing to marine fauna. During our time working in the Maldives with our partners Atoll Volunteers, we regularly encountered turtles which had become entangled in these insidious nets, many sadly often end up losing their flippers as a result. According to the Maldives Conservation Portal, the Olive Ridley sea turtles make up most of the majority of entanglements (92%), but both the Hawksbill and the Green turtles can also fall victim to these nets.

Marine biologist Alex Stead from Atoll Volunteer rescues a large Olive Ridley turtle entangled in a ghost net in Naifaru, Maldives.

What about the UK waters?

Ghost nets threatens marine life everywhere on the planet, even in the UK waters. While we don’t have an exact number, it is believed that around ten thousand sections of fishing nets are threatening marine wildlife around the UK coastline. For those who don’t know it yet, our oceans volunteer Emilie Chartier, is also a volunteer for the international marine conservation Organisation Sea Shepherd here in the UK and has recently been involved in the new campaign “GhostNet”. Indeed, after the launch of the campaign, Sea Shepherd UK was notified of two large fishing nets on the beach near New Romney in Kent, one section of cod trawl net on Greatstone beach and a gillnet which had washed up on Littlestone beach over the Christmas period. On Saturday 20th January, a team of SSUK volunteers joined forces with locals and two BDMLR volunteers to remove the nets. It was not easy task as the huge nets were partially buried in the sand but led by the teams passion and dedication to protect the ocean, they managed to remove them in several hours. Unfortunately, one of the nets had already made victims, several dog fishes were found dead entangled but knowing that it was not going to kill anymore marine life was such a reward and a relief.

Ghost nets and marine debris continue to pose a perilous and grave threat to ocean life, and it is clear that action needs to be taken today to halt the harrowing effects. The good news is that you too can help, by taking part in local beach cleans, reducing your own single plastic use, using social media as a platform to raise awareness and by writing to your local MP or government official to demand urgent action.

To help us in our mission to support young conservationists and marine based research projects around the world, please donate to our cause today: https://tcproject.co.uk/donate.

Article by Emilie Chartier and Harry Wright