• Ghost Nets: Ignominious Whale Tales •
BY ANNE SOBLE
In the debate over the establishment of marine protected areas off the California coast, private and commercial fishers maintained that they are caretakers of the ocean because it is in their self-interest. If they do not act as stewards of the ocean, fishers say they endanger their livelihood. However, derelict fishers have a lethal effect on fish, birds and marine mammals because of the gill and trammel nets they accidentally or purposely leave behind in the ocean.
Responsible fishers know these nets are not to be discarded, but if the quantity of "ghost" waste beneath the water's surface is any indication, there are too many fishers who use the ocean as a garbage dump. There are now tons of damaged nets, broken traps and anything else fishers don't want to bring back to shore and dispose of properly.
In less than a week, two young gray whales migrating north became entangled in the ghost waste in SoCal waters. Although volunteer disentanglers were able to remove the mass of netting that had cut deeply into areas near the whales' tails, one young adult was so debilitated by the experience that it succumbed to its injuries.
The drift netting that entangled the grays regularly ensnares all kinds of marine life, including endangered shark species. Two years ago, a ship documented the capture and death of two sperm whales ensnared by a huge jumble of net and other detritus, while untold numbers of animals presumably met the same fate.
Federal fishery managers are now planning to expand gill net operations 75 miles off the California coast, despite the state's public opposition to the use of gill nets, as evident with the passage of Prop 132 in 1990. But state law does not affect the expansion of the drift gillnet fishery for swordfish and shark. It is appalling to consider the number of whales, sea lions, dolphins and other species that fall victim to the death traps, but because most of them sink to the ocean floor, an accurate count is impossible. The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has verified that abandoned nets cover huge stretches of the ocean.
Some commercial operations—legal and illegal—use driftnets that are many miles in length for high-volume fishing. When they are left behind, divers are the only means to remove them. New communication devices can aid in locating and assessing the extent of a specific debris mass. The U.S. Coast Guard assists in removal to a depth of 50 feet to protect boats, but sea life is largely on its own.
Any rescue of entangled marine life is left to groups such as Ocean Defenders Alliance and other volunteer efforts that mostly survive on private donations, but a way should be found to require commercial fishers to contribute funding to rescue efforts. This is dangerous work, especially when whales are involved, because of the danger to the disentanglers.
Commercial fishers should be required by law to remove derelict gear from the ocean. Wherever possible, equipment should be biodegradable. Government should provide financial incentives that promote these activities.
Calls for all nets to be tagged with an identifying marker would result in fishers being less prone to cut loose snagged nets or dump worn netting over the side. Because nets would be trackable, fishers would have to report the location of accidental net loss or damage to facilitate an effort to retrieve it before there is untold collateral damage. That would be responsible fisher ocean stewardship in action.