Environment
The number of these ‘ghost nets’ – fishing nets abandoned or lost at sea – multiplied manifold because of Cyclone Ockhi.
All pictures courtesy: Friends of Marine Life

What happens to fishing nets and other gear that are lost at sea? They stay there for a long, long time – sometimes even 600 years – polluting the sea and endangering marine life. The number of these ‘ghost nets’ off the Kerala coast multiplied manifold because of Cyclone Ockhi, and on Sunday, environmental activists went on a clean-up mission, and recovered 400 kg of ghost nets from two different locations in the Vizhinjam seabed in just 90 minutes.

“When Cyclone Ockhi wreaked havoc in the southern coast of Kerala, hundreds of fishing boats and fishing nets drowned. These have not been recovered yet. And eventually, these lost fishing gears, including ghost nets, affect the marine life,” Robert Panipilla, president of Friends of Marine Life (FML), told TNM.

“Additionally, when the seabed is affected by the ghost nets, fishermen’s catch will also be affected,” Robert added.

Ghost nets trap and kill millions of marine animals. Additionally, ghost nets also cause damage by entangling live corals, smothering reefs and introducing parasites and invasive species into reef environments. On Sunday, environmental activists from FML, launched the clean-up mission at Vizhinjam.

The effects of ghost nets can be felt far from their point of origin too. The ghost nets, which drift with ocean currents for years, move to long distances while continuing to catch and kill marine animals in a process called “ghost fishing.”

Interestingly, entangled fish often act as bait, attracting larger predators, which may themselves become entangled.

According to Robert, this is perhaps the first time in India that ghost nets are being recovered.

“Actually, it is not our job. These things have to be done by state and central government organisations. But unfortunately, they are not ‘aware’ of such things. So we, by recovering ghost nets, have shown them how important it is to protect the marine environment,” Robert said.

“These ghost gears will even last for 600 years causing damage to the seabed and marine environment,” Robert added.

Robert added that FML’s nine divers recovered these ghost nets from the seabed and they have decided to dispose them scientifically with the help of corporation authorities. The recovered nets were lodged at a depth of three metres in the Vizhinjam coast.

According to Robert, other than Ockhi related ghost nets, their studies have revealed that basically there are four kinds of ghost nets.

“The nets used by large fishing vessels get caught in the bottom. Unfortunately, they abandon them here. The second type of ghost nets are those that get caught underneath when smaller fishing nets spread out by fishermen are cut off by big passing vessel. The third type are those that get caught in currents and end up on the ocean floor. And the fourth type are special kinds of nets that are abandoned after three or four uses,” Robert said.

A UN report released in 2009 estimates that abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear in the oceans makes up around 10 percent (640 000 tonnes) of all marine litter.

According to the UN report, the extent and impacts of the problem are thought to have increased significantly over the last 50 years with increasing levels of fishing capacity and activity in the world’s oceans.

“This increased activity has extended to previously untouched offshore and deep-sea environments, which can be more sensitive to the impacts of fishing gear,” the report says.

“The impact of fishing gear in the environment has been exacerbated by the introduction of non-biodegradable fishing gear, primarily plastics, which are generally more persistent in the environment than natural materials,” the report adds.

The UN says that outside of Europe and Northern America, the picture provided of the extent and nature of abandoned fishing gear is much more patchy.

“The rate and magnitude of lost or abandoned fishing gear, especially ghost nets, from the South and Central Pacific, southeast Atlantic, the Caribbean and much of the Indian Ocean is still largely unknown,” the report adds.