Discarded fishing nets, also known as ghost gear, are the unspoken killer of marine life that we have no intention of stopping.
Yes, plastic waste is a problem, but the largest contributor to plastic garbage patches, also known as garbage vortexes because they just suck in plastic from ocean currents. In a case of what goes unseen not being addressed, and the majority of the population don’t see fishing nets on a daily basis.
46% of the mass of all waste material that we can find in Great Pacific Garbage patch is made up of fishing gear.
A whopping 640,000 tons of fishing gear are left floating around in our oceans every year. The unfortunate result of this ghost gear is the injury or death of an estimated 650,000 marine animals every year. Even when the nets are still in proper use, they catch animals they did not intend to, which is known as bycatch. These unwanted animals such as dolphins trapped whist fishing for tuna, are just thrown back into the sea, sometimes injured, most often dead.
Why Are Nets Being Dumped?
First of all, let’s acknowledge that there are people trying to do the right thing and have as little impact as possible. Fishing nets do need to be repaired and this process can result in plastic entering the sea. Most of this, however, is probably coming straight back to shore, washing up on local beaches.
Most nets are dumped because they are broken or no longer effective. Why bother taking old nets back to port where you’d have to pay for its disposal when you’re in the middle of a huge expanse of ocean? Nobody is going to see what you’ve done.
Fixing the problem of fishing nets killing and injuring hundreds and thousands of marine animals every year won’t be solved overnight. Here are a few possible solutions we could start looking at.
Register fishing nets
One very logical solution is to have a registry of fishing nets. Every ship has to show that it has returned with the nets it took out to sea every time. We should then have effective re-cycling for the old nets to make sure they don’t cause problems further down the line.
Biodegradable fishing nets could be part of the solution worldwide, since we’d imagine some countries don’t have as strict regulations as others. There may also be illegal fishing operations, so if the worldwide supply of fishing nets and other gear were made biodegradable, we’d be significantly reducing the long-term effects of ghost gear.
The Ocean Voyages Institute’s marine plastic recovery vessel went on an expedition to pull out as much plastic waste as it could from the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in June 2020. Pulling out a gigantic 103 tonnes of fishing nets and consumer plastics over the course of month and a half long mission, this is huge, but still only a small amount of the total estimated 80,000 metric tonnes in the patch.
As humans, we need to do better. It’s not acceptable for huge industries to pollute the very resource they rely on for their existence. Not only are we hampering the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 dumped into the atmosphere, we’re also killing marine life.