Abandoned fishing gear kills marine life. Yet no government seems to care | George Monbiot
HHow could they be so careless? How fishing vessels are losing so much of their nets and longlines that this ‘ghost gear’, drifting across the oceans, now poses a deadly threat to whales, dolphins, turtles and much of the rest of life Marine ? After all, fishing gear is expensive. It is either securely attached to the ship or easy to locate with modern technologies.
I’ve been asking myself these questions for a while, and I think I now have an answer. It comes from an unlikely source: a trawler working in Scotland. I’m not a fan of trawling, but I recognize that some operations are more damaging than others. He and his colleagues now seem to be hauling in more nets than fish. Trip after trip they catch vast tows of gillnets and ghost longlines, often wrapped around marine animals. He sent me his pictures, so disturbing I can hardly bear to look at them: drowned seabirds, decapitated seals and fish and shellfish of many species, which died a long, slow death. Where do these nets and lines come from? He believes they are deliberately thrown away.
I verified his identity, but he wishes to remain anonymous. Like other local trawlers, his boat brings its waste ashore. The problem, he says, is with the large ships, many of which come from France and Spain, which spend four to six weeks at a stretch. They don’t have enough storage space for the waste they they generate: most of the hold is dedicated to frozen fish. Spent gillnets and longlines should be brought back to port for disposal. But the ones he recovers have a telling feature: the expensive parts, the ones that can be reused – floats, weights and hooks – have been cut off. According to him, it’s a gift: if you find a net or a line like that, it was deliberately thrown overboard.
He and his colleagues, he says, often watch French and Spanish boats land lots of fish in Scottish ports while “no waste is brought ashore by these ships”. He estimates that a typical crew of 20 on a month-long fishing trip would generate around 20 cubic meters of waste, in addition to fishing gear. Where is it? There might be a clue in some of the other trash his boat picks up: trash bags full of French and Spanish food wrappers. As for gear, he tells me that he sees boats coming into port and “miles and miles of new gillnets are being put on board – but none are being brought ashore to be thrown away”.
The nets used by these boats are enormous: each large vessel deploys between 50 and 70 miles. But gillnets tend to wear out quickly. The fisherman tells me: “the vessel I work on lands about a cubic meter of abandoned gillnets every four to five days on average”. That’s a lot of net.
Gillnets have been banned in many waters due to their very high rates of bycatch and their mysterious tendency to disappear. In Scotland they are prohibited within six miles of the coast. But these boats work further from the shore. Beyond 12 miles, according to my contact, it is “essentially bandit territory for any vessel not registered in the UK, as UK law does not apply”. He alleges that although local boats are tightly regulated, there is virtually no oversight of foreign offshore vessels.
Competition between national fishing fleets is an explosive issue, made even worse by Brexit. At first, I was suspicious of these claims, because I know how bitter the rivalry has become. But the photographic evidence speaks for itself and his testimony is compelling. Moreover, it is clear that there is a new mood among many local boats, who are now desperate to save their fisheries. Most of them are involved in the Fishing for Litter program, landing the discarded gear and other trash they catch. But this is probably a small fraction of the undervalued gear. Unless active gillnet fishing and ghost fishing by abandoned nets are stopped, according to my contact, the entire marine ecosystem is in danger of collapsing.
He and other fishermen “wrote to the authorities until we were blue in the face”, but he says he has been repeatedly blocked. It’s a sign of desperation that he came to see me, a longtime critic of his industry.
When I approached the Scottish Government they said: “We take the protection of the marine environment seriously and are clear that any form of dumping and other illegal activities is completely unacceptable… We encourage anyone with information regarding suspicious vessel activity to report this to us on our website.
But, as the Scottish government’s own report points out, “no data or studies” have been produced showing where the discarded gear came from. This is despite the fact that in the Northern Highlands commercial fishing gear accounts for 90% of ocean plastic picked up by beach cleaners, and entanglement in static fishing gear is a leading cause of death for minke whales and humpback whales in Scotland. There is a reliable principle of public administration: if a government is really interested in a question, it commissions researchers to study it. No data means no interest.
There are similar problems all over the world. The gillnet and the ghost fishing it causes has reduced the population of vaquita – the world’s smallest member of the whale and dolphin family, which lives in Mexico’s Sea of Cortez – to less than 20. The week Last, a young humpback whale was spotted in Antarctic waters, its dorsal fin severed, with fillets cutting through the skin around its tail. As global seafood consumption has doubled in 50 years, the issue has become increasingly urgent.
Yet most governments propose to do nothing more than “encourage” fishers and gear manufacturers to behave responsibly, without penalties or incentives. No ship should be allowed to leave port unless it has enough space to store all its waste. Mandatory deposit schemes would ensure that fishermen return used gear to manufacturers at the end of their life. All nets must be traceable to the vessels using them. While some gear is inevitably accidentally lost, it’s not hard to spot patterns of deliberate disposal.
But, like the fictional President of the United States in the movie Don’t Look Up, world governments, faced with ecological collapse, have again decided to “do nothing and evaluate.”