The Unseen Threat to Marine Mammals That You Can Help Stop

A global network of divers is campaigning against 'ghost fishing'—abandoned nets that trap and kill seals, dolphins, and other ocean life.
A diver removes a ghost net off the coast of Catalina Island in California. (Photo: Shingo Ishida/Ghost Fishing)
Aug 6, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Kristina Bravo is Assistant Editor at TakePart.

A few years ago, veteran diver Heather Hamza started hearing about “ghost fishing.” That’s what happens when discarded fishing nets and other gear continue to trap and kill marine mammals.

Not many people know about ghost fishing. But Hamza and Ghost Fishing, a Netherlands-based global network of volunteer divers, aim to change that.

Estimates of the number of marine critters killed by derelict fishing gear are hard to come by, though Hamza has seen firsthand the devastation during the diving missions she coordinates in Southern California.

“We have personally rescued sharks, crabs, and fish,” she said. “Unfortunately, marine mammals, by the time we get to them, they're already dead. They drown even though they can stay underwater for a very long time. The chances of finding a sea lion still alive are slim to none. So we have to cut out many carcasses.”

It becomes especially problematic for species that take years to reach sexual maturity. Killing just a couple of the animals—sharks, whales, sea turtles, and certain types of sea birds, among others—before they have reproduced can wipe out entire generations, according to Hamza.

A nurse by training, Hamza doesn’t eat seafood, and she said eating less of it or not at all is the most effective thing people can do to eliminate ghost fishing. “I know for a lot of people that’s not going to happen,” she said.

Chuck Kopczak, curator of ecology for the California Science Center, agreed.

"The ultimate thing would be reducing our consumption of seafood, which is easier said than done,” said Kopczak. “But people can try to find out how what they choose to eat is caught and avoid species caught with gill nets, which are typically the ones that catch target species along with anything else that goes into it."

“All kinds of bycatch that are caught and simply thrown back over the sea dead—which is a terrible waste of those animals,” he added.

Diving and collecting nets hundreds of feet below sea level is a dangerous task, and the Ghost Fishing divers—whose day jobs range from scuba instruction to engineering—are all volunteers.

An Italian company that recycles the nets collected by the Ghost Fishing team pays for the boats used. The divers pay for the equipment while organizing educational outreach to promote better fishing practices and consumer awareness. This year Ghost Fishing is teaming up with the Discovery Channel’s "Shark Week" to publicize the problem.

Most people know not to eat shark fin soup, for instance, said Hamza. “But you have all these commercial fishing nets and all kinds of other commercial fishing apparatus that are extremely detrimental to sharks and lots of other animals. We just really need to be aware of where our food is coming from.”