Ghost gear: The killer beneath the waves

MUSCAT: A staggering 12 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the ocean every year, the equivalent of emptying a truck full of trash into the ocean every minute. Amidst this waste are some kinds of nylon and plastic that are particularly hazardous.
Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear — otherwise known as ‘ghost gear’ — is a problem that is proving to be catastrophic for an already fragile marine ecology. These stray nets get dragged around by ocean currents and storms and end up trapping, killing and destroying marine life and coral reefs. Dolphins, whales, turtles and seals get caught in these nets and suffer terrible wounds, infection, starvation and eventually die.
Every year, growing quantities of ‘ghost gear’ kill over 136,000 sea mammals. In fact, 45 per cent of all marine mammals on the Red List of Threatened Species have been impacted by lost or abandoned fishing gear. Some of these are almost invisible in the water, and are extremely strong and resistant to biting and chewing by entangled animals.
In the past, most equipment was made of hemp or cotton that were degradable underwater. These days, most of it is made of tough, synthetic nylon which is light, buoyant, durable and cheap making it ideal for fishing. Unfortunately, it is these same qualities that also make fishing gear a fatal and growing threat. As it gets tossed about by the waves, ‘ghost gear’ continues to trap fish and marine life for years or even decades after it goes in the water.
The biggest problem is that discarded fishing gear doesn’t break down easily. Nylon and plastic can take centuries to break down. When they do eventually disintegrate, they not only leave deadly polyurethane chemicals behind but also form tiny particles that enter the food chain and potentially harm marine life and ecosystems.
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization has estimated that ‘ghost gear’ makes up as much as 10% of all ocean litter. According to an FAO report, over 700,000 tons of fishing gear finds its way into the sea every year. A recent study estimates that ‘ghost gear’ accounts for nearly half of the debris in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.
Given the gravity of the situation, the Environment Society of Oman (ESO) has been focusing on ways to contain and reduce the impact of ‘ghost gear’ in the waters off the coast of Oman. Teams from the ESO have been actively engaging with fishermen and educating them on the impact that ‘ghost gear’ has on marine life. Large bins have been made available so that they are able to dispose of nets responsibly. Regular communication with boat crews have resulted in an estimated 332 kg of waste nets being collected, in addition to 293 kg of loose plastic and ropes and 832 kg of general waste.
Additionally, ‘ghost gear’ and fishing net clean ups by the ESO on Masirah island last year saw the collection of 197 tons of abandoned fishing gear. Over the last three years an estimated 425 tons of abandoned fishing gear have been collected from 78 km of vitally important turtle nesting beaches. According to ESO reports, this is possibly one of the largest dedicated net clean-ups of fishing gear globally and is one of their proudest achievements to date.
While effective solutions are being implemented locally it is important that a concerted global approach be taken to monitor and fight this threat. By working together, we can protect marine life and move towards a future free from the ‘ghost gear’ threat.