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Warning over ‘ghost gear’ fishing debris harming wildlife

By Emily Beament, PA Environment Correspondent

Up to a million tonnes of fishing gear is left in the ocean each year, creating “deadly” marine debris for wildlife, conservationists have warned.

This “ghost gear” of lost, abandoned or broken nets, lines and ropes makes up at least 10% of marine litter and is the type of plastic debris most likely to prove fatal to marine mammals, seabirds and sea turtles, WWF said.

In a report on the issue, the wildlife charity warned that ghost gear also damages valuable sea habitats and tourism spots and continues to catch fish after it has been lost – hitting commercial catches of fish stocks.

WWF is calling for more governments to join leaders from 40 countries who are supporting a new UN treaty on marine plastic pollution, and for it to include effective measures to control ghost gear.

And it is urging countries to join the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, an alliance of the fishing industry, businesses, campaign groups, academics and governments, focused on solving the problem worldwide.

Somewhere between 500,000 and one million tonnes of fishing gear is left in the ocean each year, with fishers unable to locate or retrieve it or discarding it to conceal illegal fishing activities, the report said.

Marine debris affects two-thirds of marine mammals, such as porpoises, half of seabirds and all species of sea turtles.

Across all species, ghost gear is the most likely to prove lethal – with many creatures dying slow, painful deaths tangled up in old nets or lines, the conservation group warned.

And when it is made of plastic, it takes decades to break down, with its harmful effects lasting long after it has been lost from the fishing vessel.

But there are solutions, WWF said, such as marking fishing gear so owners can be identified, improving disposal and recycling, and including biodegradable components so lost gear gets broken down more quickly.

The report also said it is important to remove and retrieve as much gear as possible, pointing to existing programmes including “fish for litter” schemes which reward fishers for bringing back marine debris including ghost gear.

Sarah Young, head of marine policy at WWF, said: “Our ocean is the unsung hero in the fight against the climate crisis. The planet would today already be 35C hotter without the ocean to protect us.

“But the ocean cannot protect us if we do not protect it in turn, and currently nature is in freefall.

“By polluting our waters with plastic such as ghost gear, we are destroying wildlife and vital marine habitats that could help us tackle climate change.

“To truly protect both marine life and human life we must put ocean recovery into action, and ensure fishing practices are climate- and nature-positive.”

A Defra spokesperson said: “Lost, abandoned or discarded fishing gear can cause tremendous damage to some of our most precious and fragile marine life.

“As an active member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, we encourage other nations to join and are working internationally to address the problem of ghost gear.”