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The Deadliest Catch


There’s an insidious killer lurking in our seas. It kills indiscriminately. Whales, porpoises, dolphins, seals, sea lions, sharks, seabirds and crustaceans all fall prey to its omnipresence. Its method of capture is entanglement – a slow, lingering death often follows. The more fortunate drown quickly, weighed down by miscalculation or misfortune. It’s thought that lost fishing gear, often referred to as ghost nets, accounts for 10% of all ocean plastic. Recent research of 68 studies from across the world found that around 6% of all nets, 9% of all traps and 29% of lines were left in the sea each year from commercial fishing – amounting to around 640,000 tonnes. Large trawler nets can reach over 45 metres high and 800 metres long – a colossal, uncontrollable trap lying in wait to entangle creatures large and small.


Made from nylon or other tough, synthetic fibres, nets can remain intact for decades, perhaps centuries; the longer they haunt the waters, the more they catch. Unlike other forms of plastic pollution, fishing gear is designed to kill. A single ‘ghost net’ ensnared around 300 sea turtles in Mexican waters in 2018. Lost or abandoned gear fatally entangles over 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles every year. A potentially infinite catch that usually goes undetected, and it’s a worldwide problem that we’re only just beginning to grasp the scale of.


The fishing community is the solution to the problem, coupled with innovative technological solutions such as those being developed by NetTag – a Pan-European project dedicated to developing and testing acoustic and robotic recovery devices. Their flagship technology is a transponder that can be fixed to nets and other gear. By responding to a signal emitted from a vessel on the surface, the transponder can then be located by calculating the time difference between the signal and the reply. And the cost for this ingenuity? A mere £270 – a small price to pay to protect equipment costing tens of thousands of pounds. With a very low power output, they can function for months.


NetTag’s work is also about increasing awareness of ghost nets and gear, educating fishermen about the dire consequences, the scale of the problem, and implementing new practices to minimise losses. In the long run, this may prove to be the more effective remedy. For the proverb, Time Is Money, takes on a particular pertinence while at sea. The stakes are big – who will spend a few hours or more retrieving equipment when they could be powering towards their quota? There are fines, but they’re rarely enforced – and when they are – they’re often far less than what the trawler could make in the time it takes to haul the gear back to the surface. Could the answer be to reward the retrieval?


Perhaps, along with instilling in fishermen the notion they are custodians of the sea. It puts food on their table – it should be treated with respect. And it is in the fishing industry’s best interests to do all it can to mitigate against this haunting of the oceans from its own detritus. Apart from being a hazard for vessels, the ghost nets effectively compete against the fishermen for their catch. There’s a consensus forming which points to ghost gear being responsible for a 10% drop in worldwide fish stocks. But it’s our marine mammals that often suffer the most.


Well drilled armies of volunteers around the globe drop everything at a moment’s notice to disentangle a lucky few, often risking their lives to do so. Others give up their time to clear our seas of ghost gear and other marine debris. It’s dangerous, courageous work that largely goes unrecognised. These unsung heroes are often the only lifeline our marine life has, making the difference between life and death – directly or indirectly.


Rescue groups in California, Cape Cod and Newfoundland have led the way, pioneering techniques now adopted all over the world. California Whale Rescue, part of the Marine Mammal Centre, is at the forefront and collaboration is the key to their success. Its team of biologists, conservationists, ecologists, fishermen, whale watching captains, naturalists and entrepreneurs work closely with the fishing community, fisheries, fishing gear manufacturers, the public and government to find mutually beneficial solutions that save the lives of whales in the short-term and help to prevent entanglement in the long-term.


Here, entanglements most often occur when whales come into contact with the long ropes used to attach buoys to crab pots or prawn traps on the seafloor. If the rope slips to the back of the mouth, it can become embedded in tissue, causing an immense amount of pain – restricting their movement and ability to feed. Ghost gear is now the leading cause of death in large whales around the United States, and the number of entanglements reported in these waters has risen dramatically in recent years. A growing awareness of the problem, whale numbers bouncing back since the cessation of commercial whaling in 1972, and increased activity at crab, prawn and swordfish fisheries are believed to be the main drivers.


Between 1982 and 2017 there were 521 cases of large whale entanglement reported along the west coast of the United States, with grey and humpback whales most affected. Blue, fin, minke, killer and sperm whales were also reported in gear over this period. Gillnet fisheries were found to be responsible for the most verified incidents. However, in the majority of cases, the gear type couldn’t be identified. Since 2013, crab pots have become the most common source of entanglement in verifiable cases.


79 whales were found fatally entangled, and of the 172 cases where a rescue was attempted, a full disentanglement occurred in 49 cases. On 20 occasions, the whale was able to free itself. In 2019 a further 26 whale entanglements were confirmed across the west coast, with humpbacks accounting for 17 of the cases. A response was initiated on 8 occasions, with a 50% success rate in removing all gear.


From 1990 to 2014, the UK Cetacean Strandings Investigation Programme [CSIP] recorded and examined 12,362 strandings affecting 22 species around the coastlines of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – including 143 mass strandings. Harbour porpoise accounted for over half, followed by the short-beaked common dolphin and the long-finned pilot whale with 1,959 and 442 incidences. Along with bycatch, entanglement was found to be the most common cause of death.


But progress is now being made to mitigate and educate. Last year Scotland hosted Europe’s first disentanglement training course. Organised by the Scottish Entanglement Alliance [SEA], who have built relationships with over 150 creel fishers since 2018, the workshop looked at entanglement prevention, the welfare and conservation of marine species, and how to stay safe when attempting to free an animal. The course was delivered by David Mattila, coordinator of the Global Whale Entanglement Response Network, who has trained over 1,200 responders in 34 countries, and was supported by the British Divers Marine Life Rescue team who regularly rescue marine life around Britain’s 19,491 mile-long coastline. There was also a demonstration of fishing technologies which don’t require ropes from the seabed to the ocean surface. This sharing of experiences and insights combined with innovation is the way forward – stronger lines of communication leading to a greater likelihood of less suffering and a life being saved.


Establishing networks of responders that place fishing communities at the heart of the reaction is critical for effectiveness – particularly in Scotland where the geography can make a quick response difficult. Local responses benefitting from local, specialised knowledge can be of tremendous value in assisting a rescue attempt, minimising the amount distress to marine life and improving reporting levels. The vast majority of fisherman care deeply about the marine life they share the sea with, so by harnessing this, organisations like the SEA have a powerful ally with the ideal skill-set to help not only disentangle, but prevent entanglements in the first place with a bit more forethought and being receptive to new practices for mutual benefit. For instance, the simple action of adding more weight to creel nets could prevent whales from becoming caught up in lobster pot ropes.


Ghost nets and other ‘floating snares’ are also being removed from our oceans through collaboration. And not just removed, but recycled and repurposed. The Healthy Seas initiative is a pioneer in turning waste into value. Since 2013, 170 volunteer divers have removed over 510 tonnes of fishing nets from across the world. The nets are then transformed into clothing and interior products, such as carpets.


The charity Ghost Diving is another passionate group of volunteers with a mission to clear our seas of these traps, and use powerful photography to highlight the problem. They’ve been removing debris since 2009, spearheading campaigns to raise awareness of the issue. Their underwater photography has documented dozens of clear-up operations on reefs, shipwrecks and the seafloor – making a hidden problem visible.


The Global Ghost Gear Initiative [GGCI] brings together corporations, the fishing industry, NGOs, governments and the academic world to find solutions to the global problem of lost or abandoned fishing gear. Their work includes the inspiring Joanna Toole Annual Ghost Gear Solutions Award, which rewards the most deserving new approach, mechanism or invention to mitigate, prevent or eliminate entanglement. The GGCI has also led the way in developing a best practice framework for the management of fishing gear.


So there is already, a dedicated network around the world fighting against this scourge of the oceans, but they need more help. They need more investment. Most are volunteers. Governments around the world need to do far more – the world needs to act as one to combat this mostly inconspicuous pollution that’s not contained behind borders. Its tentacles stretch far and wide; it is pervasive in the extreme. With severe weather and tightly packed fishing territories leading causes of gear loss, it’s a problem that is only likely to get worse unless more is done.


Hope comes in the form of the Global Ocean Treaty, due to be agreed this year, which would create vast sanctuaries of protection for marine life around the globe. Currently 64% of our oceans lie beyond the jurisdiction of any one nation. Only 1.2% of the ‘high seas’ are marine protected areas. We need a worldwide network of No Take Zones [NTZs]. We need to stop dolphins drowning in nets and seals being strangled to death in lines. We don’t want whales to suffer blocked digestive systems after consuming gear, leading to starvation. And we don’t want any creature to become extinct, which is what is likely to happen to the vaquita; a small porpoise now confined to the Gulf of California. Illegal fishing, bycatch, and, yes you’ve guessed it, ghost nets, have almost obliterated its numbers. There are now thought to be fewer than 20 left. Possibly the most compelling case for keeping our oceans free of the ghost net.

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