The Ghost in the Machine


Our reckless destruction of the marine ecosystem will cost humanity a major food source, writes Mahitha Owk

If overfishing weren’t problem enough for the health of the Earth’s marine life, human thoughtlessness has created another, potentially more lethal one: ‘ghost fishing’. Discarded fishing nets and tackle, which take decades to degrade, continue to trap and kill fish and other marine creatures for years.

“It is estimated that over 100,000 marine animals such as turtles, dolphins, seals and whales, die each year from ingesting or becoming entangled in plastic debris,” says Planet Love Life, an environmental group working to clean our oceans. Countless millions of fish, crustaceans and seabirds also fall victim to the 6,40,000 tonnes of derelict fishing gear such as  gillnets and crab pots/traps, longlines and trawls that are dumped each year.

According to environment watchdog Greenpeace, ‘ghost gearing’ contributes to 10% of the plastic that has accumulated in the oceans and cite an incident where 300 turtles died in Mexican waters in a single fishing net.

These nets, says marine biologist Ravi Ranjan Kumar, “take hundreds of years to degrade and in that span, hundreds and thousands of animals entangle in them and starve to death. The dead animals attract scavengers, who also fall prey to the net.” Fishermen should take responsibility to discard these nets properly, he says. “Even though fishermen abandon used nets by the seashore, they end up into the oceans.”

Says Venkatesh Charloo, founder and trustee of NGO Coastal Impact, “They are two types of nets, one is cotton which is degradable and the other being plastic is non-degradable. Fishermen use plastic nets as they are durable.” But the problem is that fishermen go into deep waters to catch fish and discard their nets there.

“If it is somewhere near the shore we try to clean up after them, but going into the sea isn’t easy for us,” explains Charloo. “We cannot blame the fishermen as this is their livelihood and nets do break and drift away, but we need to educate them.”

The problem is made worse by the fact that the plastic in the oceans breaks down into tiny particles called microplastics or plastic beads. These plastic particles when mixed with algae are mistaken for food and are ingested by fish. “My teammates and I, when working on a project cut open fish and found plastic inside them,” says Kumar. Humans when consuming fish are inadvertently consuming a certain amount of toxic plastic.

It is estimated by the World Economic Forum that by 2050, the oceans will have more plastic than fish if the present situation continues. However, ghost fishing can be controlled by adopting a few changes. The first and foremost is that fishermen should not throw their broken or disused nets into the ocean but bring it them to shore for recycling.

Also, fishermen should be encouraged to use biodegradable nets. A study published in Animal Conservation Journal shows that biodegradable nets are as efficient as nylon nets. Biodegradable nets are made of 82% polybutylene succinate and 18% polybutylene adipate co-terephthalate. These nets if discarded in the ocean biodegrade in 24 months, unlike plastic nets which can take hundreds of years.

It is difficult to regulate the disposal of waste fishing gear though multilateral agreements and conventions. After all, 64% of the world’s oceans do not lie within any national jurisdiction. However, the United Nations is working towards such a protocol under the prevailing United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).  

The UN is committed to safeguarding the health of our oceans and marine life. As one of its Sustainable Development Goal states, “By 2025, prevent and significantly reduce marine pollution of all kinds, in particular from land-based activities, including marine debris and nutrient pollution.” It wouldn’t come a day too soon.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *