Ghosts of fishing gear haunt the ocean

With the Indian Ocean as the second highest carrier of abandoned plastic, a Mediteranean dive brings focus on fishing gear killing marine life.

Published: 06th September 2020 05:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th September 2020 07:21 PM   |  A+A-

A shark tries to free itself from an abandoned fishing net

A shark tries to free itself from an abandoned fishing net. (photo| Special Arrangement)

Express News Service

For five days between July 22 and 25, divers recovered over half a tonne of ghost gear—fishing gear abandoned in the ocean—from HMS Perseus, a World War II British submarine that was sunk by an Italian mine off the Greek coast 78 years ago.

The only account of the incident came from lone English-seaman John Capes, who after taking a last swig of rum swam five miles over eight hours to reach the Cephalonia coast. The wreck is now a world heritage site.

When Ghost Diving volunteers reached the submerged craft, they found it trapped in plastic fishing nets that had accumulated over seven decades. The sub's conning tower and fore outer hull were completely entangled. It took them three 65-minute dives to clear the sunken vessel.

By latest count, 6,40,000 to 8,00,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost or thrown annually worldwide­ into the sea—10 percent of the globe’s plastic pollution and around 70 percent of all macro plastics when estimated by ocean weight.

The Healthy Seas, an ocean-cleaning initiative which conducted the Perseus dives, has collected some 460 tonnes since it started in 2013. The nets take over 600 years to decompose, thereby making the pollution lethal. 

Ghost gear, like what divers found on the Perseus, traps, entangles, smothers and kills marine life. It is the deadliest plastic pollution in the ocean, because its specific purpose is to snare and kill fish, crustaceans, whales  and endangered ocean species - over 1,00,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles, according to the 2018 World Animal Protection.

The ocean tides are carrying nets and lines to Arctic coastlines and Pacific Islands, and get snagged on coral reefs or sink to the ocean floor. The very same fishermen who generate ghost gear suffer because they lose considerable amount of catch.

The UN Development Programme has suggested that fishing communities along India’s west coast use square fishing nets instead of diamond-mesh nets which trap baby fish, which otherwise have a chance to grow.

The ghost gear off the Indian coast has not been fully mapped. WWF India is working to manage marine plastic debris around the Lakshadweep islands using mapping, retrieval and upcycling initiatives. It has also been working with fishermen on the Goa coast since last year to assess the damage. Fishermen in Kerala pulled out 800 kg of ghost debris in a month as part of an experiment. 

Research shows that 90 percent of the world’s oceanic plastic waste is carried to the sea by 10 rivers, two of which are in India. A study by the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research reports that the Indus and Ganges rivers bear the second and sixth highest amounts of plastic debris to the ocean. The Indian Ocean itself holds the second highest amount of plastic debris of all oceans. 

Indian fishermen have taken up the responsibility to control the proliferation of ghost gear along the coast. Schemes such as the Kerala government’s Suchitwa Sagaram launched in 2018 continue to collect ghost gear which is fed into a plastic shredding machine. Fishing nets are getting a positive spin - collaboration between DSM, a nutrition and sustainable living corporation, and Thailand-based water sports company Starboard, harvests ghost gear from the sea.

It is cleaned, granulated and transported to their facility in Pune where the nets are turned into eco-friendly surfboards. It is estimated that by 2050, the world’s oceans will have more plastic than fish if present trends continue. Fortunately, fishing communities and organisations are waking up to the fact that the ocean needs to be saved from turning into a vast graveyard by ghost gear.

The troubled sea

  • 6,40,000 to 8,00,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost annually into the sea

  •  The nets take over 600 years to decompose

  • Over 1,00,000 marine lives have been lethally exposed to it, according to the 2018 World Animal Protection

  •  By 2050, the world’s oceans will have more plastic than fish

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