These Creepy 'Ghost Nets' Are Killing Thousands Of Animals Every Year

“It would be incredibly frightening for the animal ... there’s that instant moment of panic.”

In an upsetting video, a monk seal struggles to free herself after getting her neck caught in a piece of old fishing net. She kicks her flippers, trying to disentangle herself — but the harder she tries to get away, the tighter the net becomes.

The person filming the monk seal eventually jumped into the water to save her — he cut away the net and set her free. But other animals are not so lucky.

Michael Pitts/

More than 650,000 marine animals, including dolphins, whales, seals and turtles, are killed or injured in fishing nets each year.

In many cases, animals get caught and die in nets that are being actively used by fishermen. For instance, thousands of dolphins are accidentally captured as bycatch in trawling nets off the coast of France every year — most, if not all, of these dolphins die, and the fishermen simply toss their bodies overboard.

Sea lion caught in fishing net
A sea lion in California entangled in a gillnet — rescuers were able to untangle her | Kanna Jones/Marine Photobank

Yet lost, discarded and abandoned fishing nets — referred to as “ghost nets” — cause just as much damage, killing hundreds upon thousands of marine animals, according to a new report released by World Animal Protection (WAP).

Approximately 640,000 tons of fishing gear are left in our oceans every year, according to WAP. In some cases, illegal fishermen may deliberately dump their nets into the ocean to avoid getting caught. But most fishing vessels operating legally simply lose their gear due to poor weather, or because their nets collide with boat propellers, rocks or other fishing vessels.

Woman handling a ghost net on a beach
A giant ghost net that washed up on a beach | WAP

Left in the ocean, ghost nets become death traps for almost any animal they come into contact with. The nets may wrap themselves around the animal’s body, and, in the case of a mammal or turtle, prevent the animal from returning to the surface to get air, causing them to slowly drown.

Turtle caught in a ghost net
A sea turtle caught in a ghost net | Jordi Chias/

“It would be incredibly frightening for the animal at first, because it’s likely something they did not see, and it’s suddenly trapped them,” Elizabeth Hogan, U.S. oceans and wildlife campaign manager for WAP, told The Dodo. “So there’s that instant moment of panic.”

If the animal does manage to swim away with the nets still attached to him, the nets can cause painful injuries.

Sea lion with injuries from a net
A Hawaiian monk seal caught in abandoned fishing tackle off the Kure Atoll, Pacific Ocean | Michael Pitts/

“That net is cutting into flesh and muscles, and it can sever an artery,” Hogan said. “And if we’re talking about it wrapping around a tail or a flipper, the tissue can become necrotic, and they’ll lose the limb, which can then lead to a slow death. So it’s very unpleasant for them regardless.”

“The hardest part is seeing the harm done to ocean wildlife,” Hogan added. “Seeing the catastrophic injuries [that] whales, seals, dolphins and sea turtles wind up with as a result of human activity. That can be heartbreaking to see because it’s obviously not the animal’s fault.”

Dead sea animals caught in fishing net
A deceased cormorant entangled in a ghost net in Cornwall, UK | Dave Peake/Marine Photobank

The team at WAP is currently working with governments, businesses and fishing organizations to decrease the number of ghost nets being left in the oceans. They’re also working to remove existing ghost nets in an effort to save animals’ lives.

While the issue of ghost nets endangering animals won’t be fixed overnight, Hogan remains optimistic that change will happen — and a big step toward making this happen is through increased awareness.

Woman collecting ghost nets from beach

“Awareness is something that gives me hope,” Hogan said. “I’ve read more in the media about ocean plastic and the issue of ghost fishing fear in the last 18 months than I’ve ever seen in my life leading up to that time.”

To learn how you can help clean up the oceans and save animals from these nets, check out WAP’s Global Ghost Gear Initiative.