June 8 is World Oceans Day. It's a day dedicated to highlighting the importance of this vital ecosystem that covers seventy-one percent of the Earth and is home to iconic marine animals. But there is a danger that lurks beneath.
Research shows us that every year, some 640,000 tons of fishing gear, known as "ghost fishing gear," are lost or discarded in our oceans. It travels long distances from its point of origin and accumulates in hotspots around the world. This tangled web of nets, traps, lines, hooks and packing bands injures and kills an estimated 136,000 seals, whales, porpoises and sea lions annually and poses a threat to local economies, the environment, tourism, human health and the conservation of marine animal species.
It is a massive problem beneath the ocean's surface that needs a solution. So where can we start?
As part of World Animal Protection's Sea Change campaign, I recently joined our partner, the Gulf of Maine Lobster Foundation, for a Gear Grab expedition off the coast of Portland, Maine. Ghost fishing is a major concern for marine animals on the Northeast coast of the US. It is estimated that half (48 to 65 percent) of Gulf of Maine humpback whales have been entangled at least once in their lifetime. More than 70 percent of north Atlantic right whales, a critically endangered species, have been entangled in ghost fishing gear. Up to 300,000 "ghost" lobster pots can be lost to the seas each year in the coastal waters of Maine alone, often due to bad weather or gear conflict.
Working with the GOMLF and 10 local volunteer fishermen, we spent the day trolling the waters looking for ghost gear. A pod of 11 harbor seals were spotted swimming in an area where traps and lines were often found. The local fishermen spoke about the seals attempting to grab bait from the active and derelict traps, so risk to these animals for entanglement are very real.
After a long day at sea, our final count for a day's work included the removal of some 147 traps, as well as 1,000 pounds of rope and line, from local waters. Over 125 marine animals (including lobsters, several of whom were carrying eggs) were released back into the ocean. Derelict pots and line were sent to local facilities to be recycled into new products that will serve the local community, while traps still in good condition were returned to their owners.
The day was a great example of how a collaborative solution can help reduce the volume of ghost gear while promoting a healthy and sustainable fishery. While we are working with local partners and leading businesses to develop solutions through our Global Ghost Gear Initiative, everyone can play a part in protecting marine animals.
Take part in a local beach clean-up. If you are a diver, document when and where you see ghost gear or entangled animals and notify local authorities immediately. Ask your local grocer if their seafood is sourced from ghost gear-free seas. Or become part of our Sea Change movement and get updates on local events you can participate in, local news that you need to know and other ways that you can help. Together we can help save over 1 million marine animals by the end of 2018 and make every day a world oceans day to celebrate.
Pictured: Elizabeth Hogan of World Animal Protection removes ghost gear from the Gulf of Maine.