Saturday, July 2, 2011

Ghost Fishing: derelict fishing gear continues to ensnare sealife

When you think of ocean trash, what comes to mind? Plastic bags? Soda can rings? Plastic water bottles? Divers sometimes see more unusual things: lawn chairs, shopping carts; I was diving off Southern California's Catalina Island and came upon a complete porcelain toilet sitting upright in the sand. There's plenty of debris in the ocean, whether floating or sedentary, and there are many organizations dedicated to rounding up as much of it as possible.

But there's another type of debris that can be even more sinister in its impact on the seas: fishing gear in the form of derelict nets and traps. These are items originally designed to catch animals and, when lost or abandoned, continue to ensnare and destroy sealife.

In the latest issue of Sport Diver magazine, Project AWARE reported that in northeastern United States' Chesapeake Bay, a recent removal project recovered more than 60,000 derelict crab traps. These traps would eventually corrode, but that can take well over a decade. In the meantime, they continue to trap crabs - "ghost fishing" as it is called. The Chesapeake Bay project also reported that as many as 150,000 traps are lost annually, with as many as a quarter of a million traps lost in the Gulf of Mexico.

On the west coast, fishing nets snagged on wrecks and reefs pose both a problem with ghost fishing and with damaging the reefs themselves. The nets can smother reef growth or, in some cases, animals like anemones, sponges, and mussels can begin to grow on the nets but, as the nets slowly break down, this artificial strata collapses and more sealife is lost.

Ocean Defenders Alliance, a non-profit based in Huntington Beach, CA, is working to address the issue. It solicits help from local divers and identifies wrecks or reef areas blighted by lost nets. Using volunteers to remove derelict nets, much of their efforts are limited to depths and diving conditions that are safe for recreational divers, but this has not stopped them from pulling up thousands of pounds of netting.

According to Project AWARE, fishermen themselves are now getting involved in the training, locating, and removal of abandoned fishing gear. The motivation? In some areas, they are unable to effectively lower their traps because of the level of debris. Now, for anyone strongly opposed to commercial fishing and thinks that whatever problems the fishermen may have in deploying gear could be a good thing, keep in mind that until clean, efficient aquaculture becomes the dominant commercial activity, these fishermen will continue to struggle with getting their traps out and, in the meantime, abandoned gear is wrecking havoc.

Project AWARE has established a Dive Against Debris program designed to develop, with the help of trained recreational divers, a database of information to assist government agencies and decision-makers in fully comprehending the scope of the problem and how it might be managed in the future. Interested divers can visit Project AWARE's website to learn how to get involved.

Visit the Project AWARE website.
Visit the
Ocean Defenders Alliance website.

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