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A Ghostly Tale For World Oceans Day

By Soumya Swaminathan & S Velvizhi | Jun 08, 2023

Discarded or ghost fishing gear is a growing threat to biodiversity of seas. 

All it takes is awareness, training and incentives to halt the damage

Oceans and seas cover more than 70% of the Earth’s surface. They generate most of the oxygen we breathe, feed billions of people, regulate climate, and are vital to the economy of thousands of fishing and coastal communities. Yet, oceans are under pressure and face unparalleled threats – a fact we should remember as we mark World Oceans Day today.

An FAO report indicates 30% of the world’s ocean stocks are over-exploited, depleted or recovering from depletion caused by factors such as overfishing, by-catch of species caught in fishing gears, climate change, marine debris etc. Every year an estimated 8 million tonnes of plastic waste end up in the oceans. Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear commonly referred to as ‘ghost gear’ accounts for roughly 10% of all marine debris accumulating in our marine environment.

Ghost gear is a threat to biodiversity and marine habitats, especially corals and endangered species like sharks, turtles and dugongs. Just because fishing gear is no longer used by fishers, it does not mean it is useless. Discarded and unused gears sink to the ocean’s bottom. Marine life gets entangled in the gear, often falling prey to scavengers. Many animals, including turtles, dolphins and whales that get caught or entangled in ghost gear can die a slow and painful death through suffocation or exhaustion. These gears continue to trap everything in their path, presenting a major problem for the health of our oceans. In addition to environmental impacts, lost and discarded fishing gears also have significant socio-economic impacts on both fishers and fishing industries.

Studies show over 90% of species caught in ghost gear are of commercial value. By reducing harvests ghost gear undermines the sustainability, stability and economic returns from fisheries. Ghost gear also causes increased operational costs for boat owners. Lost gear is a hazard to boat navigation and safety at sea. Significant costs are incurred to remove entangled gear from propellers or engines. Entangled gear causes breakdowns leading to costs of repair and rescue, and loss of fuel.

Given the varied consequences of ghost gear, a multi-dimensional range of solutions and collaborations among different stakeholders is crucial. Eliminating ghost gear from the ocean requires commitment, cooperation and innovation at every level throughout the fishing-gear supply chain. There is need for policies and field-based coordinated efforts involving the community and panchayats to address ghost gear issues.

Ocean clean-ups are one way to remove ghost gear. It is all-important to have strategies at landing centres and fishing harbours to prevent ghost-gear pollution. Prevention includes awareness-building among fishers and boat owners on gear disposal and retrieval processes. It is also important that methods to recycle ghost gear are improved. Governments, companies and gear manufacturers should incentivise – by money or discounts and access facilities – fishers to return used and damaged fishing gear. Fishing gears collected would be part of a ‘circular economy’ for recycling or upcycling, transformed into art, ornaments or sports nets among other useful things. Key is altering fishers’ perception about old nets – that they are not waste products but raw material for several useful products that would bring economic advantage as well as save marine life.

Developing solutions to the ghost gear problem are part of research conducted in Fish For All centre, Poompuhar, Tamil Nadu. The approach focuses on education and engagement with local fishing communities at landing centres to explain the extent of damage ghost gears cause to sea turtles, whales, dolphins etc.

Over the last three years, ghost gear clean-up drives in several fish landing centres and harbours have been organised across five coastal districts in Tamil Nadu. Baseline data was collected to understand the abundance, distribution and composition of plastics on the beach. The clean-up initiative engaged 724 youth from fishing communities, who helped remove about 5.816 tonnes of debris comprising fishing nets, ropes, plastic water bottles, footwear etc. Partnering with other agencies, the youth volunteers continue to spread awareness among fishers by training local communities in upcycling ghost nets.

World Ocean Day on June 8 highlights the importance of ocean health and conservation of marine life, which provides food for billions and job opportunities for over 50 million people worldwide.

It is time to seriously reflect on how ghost gear impacts ocean health, marine life and fish stocks. Implementing measures to reduce the increasing menace will not only protect marine life, but also present an untapped potential to create new business opportunities and additional sources of income for marginalised fishing communities. Achieving this balance would mean testing some innovative ideas and new partnerships across the coastline of India.

Swaminathan is chairperson & Velvizhi is head, Fish for All, MS Swaminathan Research Foundation

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