Entangled and Drowning in Plastic

March 10, 2019

Clear Ripple volunteers find a lot of plastic during our clean-ups. There are reliably loads of bottles, wrappers, straws and tiny shreds and bits of all shapes and colours that have been floating about and disintegrating for who knows how long. This doesn’t exactly qualify as breaking news, though; as public awareness has risen around plastic waste and the damage it does to the environment, more people are attempting to reduce their use of plastics by opting for products with less packaging, avoiding straws, contacting supermarkets to demand change and more. Nobody can argue against this being a good thing, of course—as with veganism, each individual action towards sustainability does add up.

 

But what else do Clear Ripple volunteers find plenty of, and what do we, as a culture, hear comparably little about? Fishing line! And it should come as no surprise: Fishing debris has been estimated to make up about 20% of marine plastics, a startling number in and of itself (especially when one considers that the much-maligned plastic straw appears to add up to just about 0.03%.)[1] And when it comes to macroplastic—that is, visible plastic—on the open ocean, 70% of it is fishing debris, as measured by weight.[2]

 

 

In the case of the infamous Great Pacific Garbage Patch (just one of several oceanic garbage patches around the globe), the great majority of the 80,000 metric tonne mass is fishing debris, with nets making up fully 46% and other fishing industry detritus, such as ropes, traps crates and baskets making up the rest. [3] This isn’t an isolated example, either. In 2015, nearly four tonnes of fishing nets were collected from one beach in Cornwall, UK, and during the Marine Conservation Society’s 2018 Beachwatch Big Weekend, during which volunteers cleaned up 494 beaches across the UK, 12.1% of collected debris was fishing-related.[3],[4]

 

‘For every pound of tuna we’re taking out of the ocean, we’re putting two pounds of plastic into the ocean,’ explains Sherry Lippiat, an ocean scientist and California’s regional coordinator for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s marine debris program. [5] This makes sense, considering that World Animal Protection estimates that 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are lost annually, at a shocking rate of more than a tonne a minute.[6] Millions of fish, whales, seals, seabirds and turtles die as a result of encounters with it every year, ingesting or becoming entangled in this ‘ghost gear’ and often dying slowly and painfully. Seabirds are the most threatened among all birds, with their population dropping faster than those of any other family, and fishing gear is recognised as a main cause. At least 400,000 are victims of fishing gear annually.[7] (It is worth noting, however, that this statistic does not account for ‘ghost gear’ versus fishing gear in active use.) On the islands of St. Kilda in Scotland, great skua, gannet and fulmar have all been found dead after having choked on, or becoming entangled in, fishing line. In an interview, ranger Sarah Money explained how she had to pull nearly a metre of fishing line from the bill of a dead fulmar, adding that the death of the bird also meant the death of a chick, as ‘the nest on which it was sitting will fail too as the single partner left behind cannot incubate the egg alone."[8]

 

According to the UK government, the main pressures on marine turtles in UK waters come from entanglement in fishing gear and the ingestion of plastics, and ‘fishing-related mortality’ is the cause of death in about half of all examined baleen whales. (This last statistic includes ‘active’ gear as well as abandoned.) [9] Entanglement is also a significant issue for seals, who are curious animals and are often been seeing playing with abandoned plastic gear. A five-year study conducted at one Cornwall ‘haul out’ site in 2012 found that an average of 3.6 to 5% of area seals were entangled, the great majority in nets or fishing line, and of those, 64% had life-threatening injuries as a result.[10] And in a study on cetaceans, 98% of whale entanglements were reported to have involved ghost gear, with 82% of North Atlantic right whales and 50% of humpbacks having been entangled at least once.[11],[12]

 

The strong, thin pieces of plastic of which nets and line are made are buoyant and invisible, causing them to be ideal traps as they float through the water. And this is exactly how fishing gear is designed to work: It is as invisible as possible, and it is durable and strong so that it doesn’t weaken when animals struggle to escape. Nor does it become brittle after time in the sun or after becoming wet.

These factors combined mean that it continues to be a danger to marine life of all kinds long after it has ceased to be used for its intended purpose.

 

 

Multiple studies based at different fisheries in the UK have indicated that the loss of fishing gear is a frequent and routine occurrence; however, a lack of widespread, long-term data make it difficult to gauge exact numbers. Likewise, it is difficult to quantify the number of animals unintentionally killed by ghost gear; however, as World Animal Protection points out, the scale of the problem is likely ‘far more serious’ than data suggests, since only recovered animals can be counted, when, of course, many die at sea. [13] The organisation’s five tier survey of corporate responsibility with regards to ghost gear on the part of seafood companies had alarming results; of the fifteen largest, none qualified for the top two tiers, only three qualified for the third, and ten were in the last one, as researchers had found ‘no evidence’ that the issue was even on their business agenda. The average score was just 22%.[14]

 

And so making ethical choices with regards to plastic doesn’t just involve going without a straw when ordering drinks. It also requires us to avoid supporting an industry which contributes to plastic pollution on a grand scale and has yet to be held accountable for it. Leave fish to swim in peace and you won’t just be benefiting the fish themselves, but the entire ocean and all who rely on it.

 

This is just one example of the vast amount of fishing gear removed at a Clear Ripple Beach Clean at Ballyhalbert beach back in 2018. 

 

 

 

Photo Credit:

David Fleetman / naturepl.com; Brandon Cole Marine Photography / Alamy (seabird); Francis Perez (sea turtle) / Kurtis Weir (beach clean pile)

 

References:

[1] Sulis Kim, Elizabeth. [2 Sept. 2013]. ‘The anti-plastic straw campaign is helpful – but if we want to save marine life, we need to stop eating fish’; The Guardian; https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/fish-plastic-straw-ban-marine-life-ocean-environment-francis-perez-a8518351.html (accessed 4 Mar. 2019)

[2] World Animal Protection. [2018] ‘Ghosts Beneath the Waves’ https://d31j74p4lpxrfp.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/ca_-_en_files/ghosts_beneath_the_waves_2018_web_singles.pdf (accessed 5 Mar. 2019)

[3] Parker, Laura; 22 Mar. 2018; ‘The Great Pacific Garbage Patch Isn’t What You Think it Is’; National Geographic https://news.nationalgeographic.com/2018/03/great-pacific-garbage-patch-plastics-environment/ (accessed 4 Mar. 2019)

[4] Marine Conservation Society; 2018; ‘Great British Beach Clean 2018 Report’; https://www.mcsuk.org/media/gbbc-2018-report.pdf (accessed 4 Mar. 2019)

[5] Borenstein, Paul; 21 Apr. 2018; ‘Science Says: Amount of straws, plastic pollution is huge’; https://phys.org/news/2018-04-science-amount-straws-plastic-pollution.html

[6] Dalton, Jane; 8 Mar. 2018; ‘Seafood giants “let thousands of whales, dolphins and seals die in agony each year from discarded fishing equipment”’; The Independent; https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/seafood-firms-discarded-lost-fishing-equipment-thousands-whales-dolphins-seals-die-plastic-pollution-a8244181.html (accessed 5 Mar. 2019)

[7] Wines, Michael; 12 June 2013; ‘Fish Nets Found to Kill Large Numbers of Birds’; New York Times; https://www.nytimes.com/2013/06/13/us/study-finds-large-seabird-toll-from-fishing-nets.html (accessed 5 Mar. 2019)

[8] 28 June 2007; ‘”Ghost fishing” killing seabirds’; BBC News; http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/scotland/highlands_and_islands/6248366.stm (accessed 5 Mar. 2019)

[9] World Animal Protection; 2014; ‘Fishing’s phantom menace’; https://d31j74p4lpxrfp.cloudfront.net/sites/default/files/us_files/sea-change-tackling-ghost-fishing-gear-report_us.pdf (accessed 5 Mar. 2018)

[10] ibid.

[11] Dalton, Jane; 8 Mar. 2018

[12] World Animal Protection; 2018

[13] World Animal Protection; 2014

[14] World Animal Protection; 2018

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