Ghost fishing gear is wreaking havoc on our oceans. Discarded nets, ropes and other fishing waste makes up 10% of the total plastic pollution in…

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What is ghost fishing gear?

Ghost fishing gear refers to ropes, nets, and other fishing waste that’s lost or discarded at sea. It’s thought to make up a large proportion of plastic pollution in the ocean (about 10%).

It’s particularly deadly because this stuff was always designed to kill – that’s the job it was made for. When it’s left in the ocean, it continues to ensnare, maim and drown marine life for decades after being separated from its original owner and use.

As it floats on the waves, ghost gear is indiscriminate in what it catches. Marine species like dolphins and whales, turtles and sea lions, are caught in its tendrils, despite not being the original intended target.

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Sea lion, with nylon strings and piece of fishing net wrapped around his neck that caused him a deep wound.

The results are hard to look at.

Dolphins drowned, tangled in drift nets. Sea lions strangled by fishing lines, whales starved to death from blocked digestive systems.

This stuff is happening on a global scale. From the Pacific Ocean to the North Sea, there are many horror stories to be told of ghost fishing.

Over the European summer, a pregnant minke whale was found dead on a Scottish beach, tangled in a ghost fishing net that had become caught in its feeding system. In another instance, 300 turtles were found dead in a single ghost fishing net off the coast of Mexico. An entire generation of turtles, wiped out through carelessness at sea.

What can New Zealanders do about ghost fishing gear?

The solution to ghost fishing is going to take both local and global action. Our oceans need protection beyond national borders, and more places in the High Seas should be off limits to fishing. This will benefit fish populations and limit pollution.

New Zealand is a country that fishes in international waters, in places that some nations simply cannot reach. With this in mind we have a responsibility to make sure those fishing fleets aren’t offloading their trash into the global oceans, to be washed up on beaches or maim ocean life.

Gustaf Skarsgard Greenpeace, Gustaf Skardgard Antarctic, Gustaf Skarsgard ghost fishing gear, ocean protection, plastic pollution
Portrait of actor Gustaf Skarsgård onboard the Esperanza in` Discovery Bay, Livingston Island, Antarctica. Pictured with some of the fishing gear retrieved by Greenpeace crew from beaches in South Shetlands, the Antarctic. A large Yokohama fender that was retrieved from a beach on Elephant Island can be seen behind him. Greenpeace is back in the Antarctic on the last stage of the Pole to Pole Expedition. We have teamed up with a group of scientists to investigate and document the impacts the climate crisis is already having in this area. (This picture was taken in 2020 during the Antarctic leg of the Pole to Pole expedition under the Dutch permit number RWS-2019/40813)

In July 2019, researchers found fishing gear from New Zealand commercial fisheries on a remote Pacific Island, 5,000 kilometres away. On this island, a large proportion of the plastic items found were from commercial fisheries, including nets and buoys, buckets and ropes. Some of these were still stamped with Talley’s or Sanford logos.

On a trip to Antarctica earlier in 2020, crew on board Greenpeace ship the Esperanza removed a massive boom – used on fishing vessels in the region – and other fishing waste, from a remote island in the South Shetlands.

Even in our most remote regions, plastic proliferates.

Turtle trappe din fishing line, ghost fishing gear, ghost fishing, plastic waste in the ocean, plastic killing turtle

A Sea turtle is entangled in fishing gear. Greenpeace activists onboard the Rainbow Warrior found the turtle in the Mediterranean Sea north of Libya, and freed it.

But despite fishing waste being such a huge source of marine pollution, it’s currently not being considered by the New Zealand Government in the same way other problematic plastics are. While plans are afoot to tackle other single-use items through the Waste Management Act, fishing gear has been left out of the loop.

We want this to change, and for commercial fishing companies to be held to account for their waste.

As individuals, many of us have changed our habits to live as plastic-free a life as possible, avoiding the plastic bag, bidding goodbye to the bottle, shunning the straw; but our efforts will pale in comparison if industry doesn’t do its bit too.

sperm whale killed by driftnets, ghost fishing gear, ghost fishing nets, plastic fishing gear, plastic in the oceans

Dead Sperm whales thought to have been killed by illegal Italian driftnets in the waters near Mallorca.

As with a lot of the damage being inflicted on our oceans, much of it is unseen. The images included here paint a stark picture of ghost fishing’s impact on creatures like dolphins and turtles, but there’s another side to the story, hidden in the depths.

Seamounts and ghost gear

Research shows that underwater mountains – seamounts – are littered with ghost fishing gear. One study found that fishing gear made up 84% of debris found on seamounts in the Indian Ocean, for instance.

This matters because seamounts are vital habitats. They serve as nurseries and shelters for juvenile fish, and are often home to unique and delicate life like corals and sponges. They serve the marine web of life, and after being damaged by fishing methods like bottom trawling, the last thing they need is to be suffocated by discarded gear for years to come.

Life on seamounts, ghost fishing, rock lobster on seamount

Wave surge constantly sweeping through beds of seaweed where a Tristan Rock Lobster (Jasus tristani) clings to an underwater peak of Vema, circled by shoals of Yellowtail Amberjacks. These lobsters were almost fished to extinction on Mount Vema seamount

Trawl nets, lines and heavy trawl doors have been found on seamounts in the North West Hawaiian Islands, and closer to home to the situation’s no better.  New Zealand’s Graveyard seamount, on the Chatham Rise to the east of the South Island, was named so because it’s covered in ghost fishing gear. This is the legacy the fishing industry leaves behind. These are the ‘stranded assets’ ocean life has to deal with.

The good news is that solutions to this problem are available.  With the launch of Greenpeace’s Ghost Fishing Report, we’re calling on the New Zealand Government to include fishing gear into plans to tackle the plastics crisis, so no one gets off the hook. We have also been campaigning for a Global Ocean Treaty, so that parts of the High Seas can be set off limits to fishing, and in turn reduce marine litter out to sea.

Healthy oceans are vital for all life on Earth. It’s high time we treated them as though they mattered.

Download the new Greenpeace Ghost Gear report here.