Ghost gear – the other killer plastic lurking in our oceans


It’s unacceptable that so many animals including many of those filmed for Blue Planet, will suffer a prolonged and painful death.

Fish evolved in the oceans over 500 million years ago whilst humans have been around for just 200,000 years

By Steve McIvor, Chief Executive, World Animal Protection

Sir David Attenborough recently narrated the final Blue Planet 2 episode on the BBC – the series has been astounding with innovative technology allowing film makers to enter new worlds. We know more about the surface of Mars than about the deepest parts of our seas and it has reminded us that this is a critical moment for the health of the world’s oceans and why mankind and plastic waste is the greatest threat to them.

A ghost net, entangling deceased sea turtles, off the coast of Bahia, Brazil. Photo: Projeto Tamar Brazil / Marine Photobank.

Colossal numbers of plastic bottles and bags float around the earth but there is another, less well-known, man-made killer plastic lurking in our oceans. Every year more than one hundred thousand whales, dolphins, seals and turtles are caught in ‘ghost gear’ - abandoned, lost and discarded fishing nets, lines and traps which can take up to 600 years to decompose. Fishing gear is designed to catch and kill and it is the most harmful form of marine debris for animals. It’s heart-breaking to know that animals caught in this incredibly durable gear suffer a prolonged and painful death, usually suffocating or starving to death over a number of months - it’s something that is too upsetting for our television screens.

Each year at least 640,000 tons of this ‘ghost gear’ is left in our oceans – combined it weighs more than the RMS Titanic and I’ve read devastating reports stating that over 817 species are trapped and killed under the surface by this litter. The ghost gear eventually breaks down into micro-plastics and can have a lasting effect on marine life for many years.

We are not immune to this new hazard - more than a quarter of fish sold at markets in California now contain plastic from different sources - including ghost gear - and this plastic is consumed by people who eat the fish for dinner.

World Animal Protection's Christina Dixon with the heap of debris collected on a beach clean in Cornwall, UK. Photo: World Animal Protection / Greg Martin.

Illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing also greatly contributes to “ghost gear”. Both the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture organisation of the United Nations (FAO) have acknowledged an indisputable link. When fishing activities are illegal, fishermen are more likely to abandon their fishing gear to evade capture by pursuing naval forces – some vessels fishing illegally will also dump gear to avoid being denied entry to port. That is why today I have written to the Admirals of the world’s 10 most powerful navies calling on them to increase patrols to eradicate this menace. These illegal fishing operations are causing immense suffering to marine animals and some are making big profits knowing there is a very small chance they will be apprehended.

Worryingly the level of ghost gear has increased in recent years and it is likely to grow further as fishing efforts intensify all over the world. Effective solutions are being found locally and nationally, yet I believe only a global approach can enable us to monitor and fight this threat.

An adult northern gannet on RSPB Grassholm Island entangled in discarded ghost fishing gear, he was rescued by the RSPB. Photo: Sam Hobson 2016.

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) was founded by World Animal Protection in 2015 and has more than 64 participants. This initiative is bringing together partners to stop fishing gear being abandoned, supporting new ways to prevent gear from being lost in the first place and promoting better options when removing ghost gear from the oceans. Ultimately it is helping protect marine animals from harm and safeguarding human health and livelihoods. Some companies are driving innovative solutions such as removing gear from our oceans to converting recycled nets to skateboards and swimwear.

What we now need to see is the GGGI taken to the next level by governments and the industry – a sustainable global network of members committed to global change and practical solutions at scale. It is critical that as many governments and companies as possible join the effort to eliminate ghost gear and create safer, cleaner oceans.

A Hawaiian monk seal, entangled in marine debris, rests on the beach with her pup. Photo: NOAA, NMFS.

A Hawaiian monk seal, entangled in marine debris, rests on the beach with her pup. Photo: NOAA, NMFS.

Fish evolved in the oceans over 500 million years ago whilst humans have been around for just 200,000 years. It is a tragedy that in just the last few decades the human race has caused so much destruction to the oceans that have been teeming with life since dinosaurs were around.

It’s unacceptable that so many animals including many of those filmed for Blue Planet, will suffer a prolonged and painful death after being caught in ghost gear. It’s time governments and the seafood industry around the world did more to confront this preventable threat to the majestic animals that live in our oceans.

Click here to find out more about World Animal Protection’s global Sea Change work for ocean wildlife >