When it comes to ocean plastic, straws are just a drop in the ocean when compared to the plastic waste and harm to marine life caused by the fishing industry. From ghost nets to bycatch, commercial fishing is permanently altering underwater ecosystems at an alarming rate. So in addition to ditching the straw, it's time to ditch eating fish and supporting such a harmful industry. Let's explore why...
First off, let's talk ghost nets. Not familiar with the term? Ghost nets are fishing nets discarded, misplaced, or simply forgotten in the vast expanse of our oceans. Without a human hand to guide them, they drift aimlessly, ensnaring all unsuspecting marine life in their wake. We're talking millions of TONS of these phantom nets and other fishing gear polluting the oceans and killing marine life.
The History of Ghost Nets
The rise of ghost nets began innocently enough with small-time fishermen. But, as the fishing industry grew into a colossal global industry, more and more nets began their endless drift in our oceans. Those abandoned ghost nets are front and center of an international marine crisis making up more than 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch alone.
First notable discoveries
The "ghost net" phenomenon might've stayed an underwater secret for longer if not for some intrepid divers and marine conservationists in the 1970's. It was these ocean-loving folks that stumbled upon scenes that would make any nature lover's heart sink. Picture this: marine animals, from the small to the large, helplessly trapped in these abandoned nets, and coral gardens—the rainforests of the sea—choked and obscured. These early discoveries were pivotal in drawing attention to an issue that had silently grown into a mammoth problem we know today.
Bycatch: A Crisis Invisible to Consumers
Now, let's talk bycatch. While the ocean's vastness might lead us to believe it's an endless resource, that's just not the case. Enter bycatch—the accidental capture of unintended marine life as a direct result of fishing. This ranges from the microscopic plankton, usually invisible to the naked eye, to the largest of whales. The list of victims is distressingly long, with some of the most affected being sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, rays, and the shockingly vulnerable, seabirds. About 40% of fish caught worldwide is unintentional bycatch, which is then thrown back into the sea, either dead or dying. These unintentional captures (and ultimately deaths) toss the marine ecosystem into disarray. And just by eating seafood — whether it’s fish, shellfish, shrimp, canned tuna or fish sticks — your purchase is not only responsible for the food on your plate, but sadly, for the deaths of countless other sea animals, too.
The Environmental Impact
Destruction of coral reefs
Coral "reefs are the foundation of ocean health and without them, marine life would cease to exist." [Save the Reef] But in addition to rising ocean temperatures and coral bleaching (a topic for another time), they are also at risk of destruction from ghost nets that wreak havoc on these delicate ecosystems. As the heavy nets drift along the ocean floor, they bulldoze through coral formations and destroy approximately 3.9 million acres of the seabed each year. The seabed floor is home to critical marine plants that store up to 20x as much carbon as land forests. Not to mention, trawling releases between .06 and 1.5 gigatons of carbon emissions per year. Unspeakable destruction that poses a grave threat to marine biodiversity.
Threat to endangered species
The oceans harbor some of the most awe-inspiring creatures on our planet. Many of these, due to various factors, are precariously balanced on the brink of extinction. Ghost nets, sadly, exacerbate this precarious situation. As they drift invisibly through our oceans, they often entangle endangered marine species, adding another layer of threat to their already dwindling numbers. Whether it's the enigmatic leatherback turtle, the elusive vaquita dolphin, or the majestic blue whale, these nets don't discriminate. Every ensnared creature is another step towards an irreversible loss, pushing these irreplaceable species further towards extinction.
Endangered Marine Species Affected by Bycatch and Ghost Nets:
Leatherback Turtle: The largest sea turtle frequently falls victim to ghost nets. Thousands of these turtles become entangled every year, and being air-breathing reptiles, they often drown as a result.
Vaquita: The world's most endangered marine mammal is on the brink, with fewer than 20 individuals believed to remain. Illegal gill nets pose a significant threat to their dwindling population.
Blue Whale: Occasionally, these marine giants become entangled in fishing gear and ghost nets. Despite their size, the equipment can cause injuries, infections, impair their feeding, and migratory patterns.
Sawfish: With dwindling populations, bycatch remains a significant threat to this unique species of shark. Their rostrum (saw) is prone to net entanglement.
North Atlantic Right Whale: A staggering 83% of North Atlantic Right Whales have been entangled at least once in their lives. Such entanglements often result in deep lacerations, infections, and prolonged, agonizing deaths. With approximately only 400 left, every individual is vital for the species' continuation.
Hawaiian Monk Seal: With fewer than 1,400 left, entanglement in fishing gear poses a severe threat to these seals, often leading to fatal injuries.
Sharks: Various shark species, including the Hammerhead and Great White, are at risk. An estimated 100 million sharks and rays are killed every year, with a large percentage resulting from bycatch. Ghost nets further endanger these apex predators, leading to entrapment and starvation.
Dolphins: Dolphins, with their curious nature, are particularly vulnerable to entanglement. Species like the Māui dolphin and the vaquita are critically endangered partly due to bycatch in fishing nets. Thousands of dolphins face injuries or death each year due to these human-made threats.
The scale of marine life affected by bycatch and ghost nets is vast. Millions of creatures face daily threats from human activities. Addressing these issues requires global cooperation and swift, effective action to ensure the survival and health of our ocean ecosystems.
Plastic and Microplastic pollution
Ghost nets eventuallyyyy (at least partially) break down, but rather than disappearing, they fragment into thousands, if not, millions of microplastics that are impossible to clean up. Studies have found that these microscopic particles, often smaller than five millimeters, now pervade our oceans. With approximately 8 million tons of plastic entering our oceans every year, it is inevitable that they will eventually become microplastics.
These minute fragments pose severe threats to marine life. Research suggests that over 700 marine species have ingested microplastics, mistaking them for food. This ingestion can lead to blockages, malnutrition, and even toxin exposure, as these plastics absorb pollutants from the surrounding environment. A report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation predicts that, by 2050, there could be more plastic in the sea than fish (by weight)!! This ongoing cycle underscores our responsibility to address plastic waste and prevent further degradation of marine ecosystems and our oceans.
Efforts to Address the Issue
Recycling and Repurposing Ghost Nets: A Global Initiative
The issue of ghost nets is an environmental dilemma that has roused global communities into action. Recognizing the potential that lies within these discarded materials, innovative minds across the world have initiated recycling and repurposing campaigns. Through meticulous processing, these once-abandoned nets are being transformed into valuable commodities. Various industries are now producing eco-friendly products sourced from these nets. From durable carpets to sustainable swimwear, the applications are vast and varied. This proactive approach not only reduces marine pollution but also promotes a circular economy, emphasizing sustainability at every step. It's a testament to humanity's ability to find solutions even in the face of grave challenges, turning potential threats into eco-conscious opportunities.
In the face of the ghost net dilemma, the tech world has swiftly risen to the occasion, cultivating cutting-edge innovations to clean up this mess and preserve our oceans. Drones, equipped with underwater cameras, are now scouring the depths, pinpointing areas dense with discarded nets. Simultaneously, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is diving deep into the data, analyzing patterns and predicting net accumulations, optimizing retrieval efforts. Even satellites, with their sweeping aerial coverage, are joining the cause. They're capturing high-resolution images of our vast oceans, highlighting ghost net hotspots, and guiding targeted interventions. Together, these technological marvels exemplify a collaborative stride towards safeguarding our seas.
Community initiatives and awareness campaigns
Furthermore, community-driven endeavors and individual actions are pivotal in mitigating the crisis. Worldwide, locals in coastal regions are organizing beach clean-ups, where volunteers rally to retrieve and dispose of these hazardous nets. In tandem, educational workshops are popping up, where experts and activists educate the public on the detrimental impacts of ghost nets on marine ecosystems. These sessions often incorporate hands-on activities, giving participants a tangible grasp of the problem. You too can amplify the message by simply sharing this blog! Urge individuals to stop consuming fish and supporting the harmful fishing industry. Collectively, with the power of community, we can drive change and preserve our oceans for future generations.
The combined impact of ghost nets, bycatch, and commercial fishing poses an alarming threat to our oceans, causing marine ecosystem imbalances, species decline, and irreversible ecological damage. We have a shared responsibility as custodians of the planet to do something about it. Every voice, every action, and every choice we make holds the potential to influence and instigate change. By raising awareness, fostering discussions, championing sustainable practices, and by abstaining from supporting this cruel and damaging industry, we are positioning ourselves at the forefront of a transformative movement. The urgency of the situation cannot be understated, but collectively, our efforts can create waves.
1. How much of the ocean's pollution is due to ghost nets?
Approximately 10% of the marine litter is estimated to be ghost nets, making a significant impact on marine pollution.
2. What can an individual do to help?
Raise awareness, participate in beach clean-ups, support brands that recycle ghost nets, stop eating seafood, and spread the word.
3. How long do these nets stay in the ocean?
Ghost nets can remain in the marine environment for hundreds of years, all the while they are slowly breaking down into microplastics.
4. Are governments doing anything about it?
Yes, many countries have put regulations in place to curb ghost fishing and encourage retrieval of lost equipment, but the best thing we can do is to stop supporting the industry altogether.
5. Can I volunteer to help?
Absolutely! Many organizations globally welcome volunteers to help with cleanup initiatives.
Sources and Further Reading
Navigating the complexities of ghost nets and bycatch requires a foundation of credible information. For readers eager to delve deeper, here's a curated list of reputable sources that have shaped our understanding:
World Wildlife Fund (WWF): A leading organization in wildlife conservation and endangered species. Their comprehensive reports on bycatch and its impact on marine life offer invaluable insights. Link to WWF's marine conservation section.
The Ocean Cleanup: Dedicated to removing plastic waste from our oceans, their research and solutions about ghost nets provide a great depth of knowledge. Link to The Ocean Cleanup projects.
Greenpeace International: A renowned global campaigning organization. Their research, particularly on destructive fishing practices, has been instrumental in raising global awareness. Link to Greenpeace's oceans campaign.
Marine Debris Program (NOAA): Managed by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, this program offers extensive resources on marine debris, including ghost nets. Link to the Marine Debris Program.
United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): Their comprehensive reports on marine litter, especially ghost nets, provide an international perspective on the problem. Link to UNEP's marine litter topic.
Scientific Journals: For those looking for in-depth, peer-reviewed research, journals like "Marine Pollution Bulletin" and "Ocean & Coastal Management" regularly feature studies on bycatch and ghost nets.
Sea Shepherd: An international non-profit marine conservation organization. Their direct-action campaigns against destructive fishing practices have highlighted the severity of the issue. Link to Sea Shepherd's campaigns.
Remember, while these sources offer a wealth of information, it's essential to continually seek out and stay updated with the latest research and findings in the field. The oceanic ecosystem is dynamic, and our understanding must evolve with it.