New WWF Report Shines a Light on Getting Rid of Ghost Gear

Thresher Shark trapped in a fishing net         Photo: (c) Brian Skerry, National Geographic

The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) issued a new report yesterday illuminating the devastating impact of derelict or abandoned fishing gear in the ocean (aka “ghost gear”), and the numbers are terrifying — between 500,000 and 1,000,000 tons of ghost gear wind up in the ocean EACH YEAR.  This is the most long-lasting and deadly form of plastic pollution in the environment.  Just last week, federal fisheries managers reported that another highly endangered North Atlantic Right Whale was spotted tangled in fishing gear off the New Jersey coast and experts say it is only a matter of time before this gear kills the young male just as it appears to have killed the whale’s mother last summer.

Why This Matters:  While fishing gear that is in use is a threat to marine life like whales, abandoned fishing gear is just a tragedy waiting to happen and completely needless — eliminating it is totally within our control. So much marine life becomes entangled or ingests it. WWF found that the number of species affected by either entanglement or ingestion of plastic debris has doubled since 1997, from 267 to 557 species. 66% of marine mammals, 50% of seabirds, and all 7 species of marine turtles.  Given the extinction crisis facing the planet, not to mention the global decline in ocean health, it is crucial to do what we can to eliminate this type of ocean pollution.   Otherwise, the permanent loss of the  North Atlantic Right Whale and other extinct species will haunt us.

Ghost Gear’s Gotta Go

Leigh Henry, director of wildlife policy, wildlife conservation at WWF said, “WWF is seeking to shine a light on this devastating global threat to marine life. We have the power to stop it, but problems like these require integrated solutions and commitments from governments, fishing gear designers, producers, fishers, and the general public to prevent these plastics from strangling our oceans.”  This abandoned gear is also bad for the economy. Ghost gear poses dangers to livelihoods and navigation by boat.

    • Ghost gear can be a navigation hazard, affecting a vessel’s propulsion and the ability to maneuver, causing operational delays, economic loss, and, in extreme cases, injuries or even the loss of lives of crew members or ferry passengers.

The scale of the problem is massive. For example, according to WWF, an estimated 160,000 blue crab traps were lost every year in the Chesapeake Bay in the Atlantic Coastal Plain of the eastern US between 2004 and 2008, and more than 70km of gillnets were lost in Canada’s Greenland Halibut fishery in just five years.

Right Whales and Vaquita

There are many imperiled species but two of the most highly endangered by ghost gear are Mexico’s tiny vaquita porpoise, which is down to just 10 known animals, and the North Atlantic Right Whale, which has a population of only 400 remaining. Of the danger to the latest entangled North Atlantic Right Whale, Emily Green, an attorney with the Conservation Law Foundation (CLF) said, “Tragically, this is yet another dead whale swimming.”  CLF has sued federal fishery managers and the government is now under a court order to issue new rules by next May that will protect right whales from entanglement in fishing gear. IFAW’s Marine Mammal Rescue team recently had to deal with a dead minke whale that washed up on a Cape Cod beach entangled in fishing gear. It is issues like this that make the campaign to set aside 30% of the planet by 2030 for nature so important.  As Patrick Ramage of IFAW explains, “It’s not enough to decry or diligently document the death of a species. These whales are dying at human hands, while the solutions that will save them are well within our grasp.”

To Go Deeper: Read the full WWF Ghost Gear report here.  And watch this video on entanglements.

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