‘Ghost gear’ haunts ocean wildlife in grow­ing threat

Green­peace re­port re­veals aban­doned nets’ con­tri­bu­tion to plas­tic pol­lu­tion

The Korea Times - - ENVIRONMEN­T -

ON BOARD THE ARC­TIC SUN­RISE (AFP) — Far out in the South At­lantic Ocean, in­vis­i­ble to the South African coast­line, diver Pascal Van Erp sur­faced with an aban­doned lob­ster cage cov­ered in al­gae and other marine or­gan­isms.

He pulled it up to the deck of the Arc­tic Sun­rise, a Green­peace ves­sel con­duct­ing re­search around Mount Vema, an un­der­wa­ter moun­tain lo­cated around 1,600 kilo­me­ters (al­most 1,000 miles) north­west of Cape Town. Un­der­neath the layer of the dark al­gae was a green hard plas­tic cage used to trap lob­sters, with a small white pot at­tached to it.

“We are a thou­sand miles off the coast of South Africa and find­ing aban­doned fish­ing gear here … is ex­tremely dis­gust­ing,” Green­peace marine bi­ol­o­gist and oceans ex­pert Thilo Maack told AFP on board the ship.

Known as “ghost gear,” aban­doned fish­ing ob­jects make up a sig­nif­i­cant vol­ume of plas­tic pol­lu­tion in seas and oceans around the world and can trap large marine wildlife, caus­ing them slow, painful deaths.

Nets, lines, cages, cray­fish traps and gill­nets are ei­ther lost or in­ten­tion­ally dumped in the ocean at an es­ti­mated av­er­age rate of one tonne per minute.

An un­der­wa­ter drone re­vealed Mount Vema, where the Green­peace mis­sion op­er­ated, had not es­caped such pol­lu­tion. Images showed a scat­tered ar­ray of fish­ing ropes and nets cling­ing to the 4,600-me­tre (15,000 foot) moun­tain, whose peak sits 26 me­ters be­low the sur­face.

Re­searchers on the three-week ex­pe­di­tion could not de­ter­mine how long the aban­doned gear had been sit­ting there — but say it could have been there for more than a year given the state it was in.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that 640,000 tonnes of fish­ing equip­ment is dis­carded around the oceans each year, the weight equiv­a­lent of 50,000 dou­ble-decker buses, said Green­peace.

They are es­ti­mated to ac­count for 10 per­cent of the plas­tic waste in the oceans and seas glob­ally, ac­cord­ing to the U.N. En­vi­ron­ment Pro­gram (UNEP) and the Food and Agri­cul­tural Or­ga­ni­za­tion (FAO).

But “in some spe­cific ocean ar­eas, fish­ing gear makes up the vast ma­jor­ity of plas­tic rub­bish, in­clud­ing over 85 per­cent of the rub­bish on the seafloor on seamounts and ocean ridges,” as well as in the Great Pa­cific gyre, a Green­peace re­port said Wed­nes­day.

‘Zom­bie in wa­ter’

From their un­der­wa­ter rest­ing ground, dis­carded non-biodegrad­able ma­te­ri­als con­tinue to catch fish and crus­taceans, and en­snare large mam­mals such as dol­phins.

“(Ghost gear) is like a zom­bie in the wa­ter,” Maack said. “No­body takes out the catch, but it’s still catch­ing.”

Such pol­lu­tion kills and in­jures more than 100,000 whales, dol­phins, seals and tur­tles an­nu­ally, ac­cord­ing to U.K.-based char­ity World An­i­mal Pro­tec­tion. More than 300 en­dan­gered sea tur­tles were killed in a sin­gle in­ci­dent last year af­ter swim­ming into a what was be­lieved to be a dis­carded fish­ing net in south­ern Mexico.

“It’s a huge prob­lem be­cause as they are ini­tially set to trap and kill marine wildlife, they will do that for as long as they are in the oceans,” Green­peace Africa’s cam­paigner Bukelwa Nz­i­mande, 29, told AFP.

Plas­tic can take up to 600 years to break down, even­tu­ally dis­in­te­grat­ing into harm­ful mi­cro-par­ti­cles that are in­gested by fish and end up in peo­ple’s food.

Bot­tom fish­ing was banned on Mount Vema in 2007 by the Namibia-based South East At­lantic Fish­ing Or­ga­ni­za­tion (SEAFO).

But only one per­cent of the world’s oceans are cov­ered by re­gional man­age­ment bod­ies like SEAFO.

‘Cy­cle of death’

Around 64 per­cent of oceans lie out­side na­tional ju­ris­dic­tion, ac­cord­ing to the U.N.

En­vi­ron­men­tal groups are lob­by­ing the in­ter­gov­ern­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tion to come up with com­pre­hen­sive gov­er­nance sys­tems that bet­ter pro­tect marine life.

They are also push­ing for stricter mea­sures forc­ing fish­er­men to re­trieve lost gear or pay for its re­trieval.

Mean­while, non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tions have taken it upon them­selves to do some clean­ing of the seas and oceans.

“For me re­mov­ing lost gear is the most ex­cit­ing (thing),” said diver Van Erp, founder of Dutch-head­quar­tered clean-up char­ity Ghost Fish­ing, which has been op­er­at­ing since 2012.

“When I find it I’m re­ally thrilled,” said the 43-year old, his bright or­ange suit still drip­ping from his hour-long dive in the cold South At­lantic Ocean wa­ters.


Aban­doned fish­ing nets kill and in­jure whales, dol­phins, seals and tur­tles.


Dis­carded fish­ing lines are chok­ing un­der­wa­ter coral reef.

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