A new study finds the amount of net lost at sea can blanket the entirety of Scotland and then some, spanning more than 78,000 square kilometers while the fishing line, measuring almost 740,000 km, can wrap around our planet more than 18 times. Surprisingly, this only makes up for 2 percent of the gear that fishermen haul out to sea on an annual basis. Yet, abandoned and forgotten, this “ghost gear” haunts the oceans and all its creatures for hundreds of years after its demise.
The science and other stuff to know
In the new research published in Science Advances, the researchers interviewed 451 fishermen from seven countries about annual gear usage and losses, ranging from smaller vessels in coastal towns to larger boats at major ports. One country from each key marine region was selected: U.S., Belize, Peru, Morocco, Iceland, Indonesia, and New Zealand. This is the first study that collected data at the source, the fishers themselves. Previous estimates gauged annual gear loss from literature review instead.
Data showed there is more loss on smaller vessels, inferring this could be due to less outsight and cheaper equipment. The amount of loss was less than the previous 2019 literature review, which might stem from additional policy pressures since that time and enhanced equipment quality. Calculations were extrapolated based on vessel size and frequency at sea, and the researchers found the number of nets littering the ocean each year include:
- 740,000 kilometers of longline mainlines
- nearly 3,000 square kilometers of gill nets
- 218 square kilometers of trawl nets
- 75,000 square kilometers of purse seine nets
Moreover, fishers lose over 25 million pots and traps and nearly 14 billion longline hooks each year. It’s also worth noting that these figures only apply to commercial fisheries and do not account for the number of fishing lines and other gear lost by recreational fishers.
Despite the seemingly low percentage loss, it is important to remember this gear is designed to entangle fish within their watery homes. These death traps take more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals, and turtles as their victims each year, according to the World Animal Protection charitable organization. Moreover, these nets can last for up to 600 years.
Additionally, the global shark population is on the verge of collapse with increased fishing pressures and can be exacerbated by longline bite-offs of hooks, potentially restricting their feeding abilities and damaging internal organs. Over the last 50 years, there has been a 71 percent decline in global shark and ray populations.
These new findings can help conservation and fishing organizations protect the seas from ghost gear and the continued suffering and death of marine life. CSIRO, the Australian research organization responsible for the new data, made a goal of an 80 percent reduction in plastic waste entering the environment by 2030. Other organizations help by organizing volunteer dives to remove nets, advocating for traceable fishing gear, and even designing breakable nets to protect endangered species. The efforts are ongoing to alleviate public awareness and inform policy to stop the loss at its source.