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Unclogging our oceans

In March 2018, fishermen hauled 400 kg of fishing nets out of the sea in a few locations off Kerala’s south coast. There are many such reports of divers regularly making underwater trips just to extract nets that have sunk to the ocean floor off India’s coasts, ranging from Tamil Nadu to Maharashtra. The problem of ghost gear (any fishing equipment that has been lost, discarded or abandoned in water bodies) has grown from a fishing fallout that people had not heard of to one that is now difficult to ignore.

Consequences of marine debris

And rightly so, for the consequences of marine debris are many. Between 2011 and 2018 alone, the Olive Ridley Project, a U.K. registered charity that removes ghost nets and protects sea turtles, recorded 601 sea turtles being entangled in ghost gear near the Maldives, of which 528 were Olive Ridleys — the same species that come in thousands to Odisha’s coasts to nest. Other casualties worldwide include whales, dolphins, sharks and even pelagic birds.

In 2016, when a team of marine biologists reviewed 76 publications and other sources of literature on ghost gear from across the world, they found that over 5,400 marine animals belonging to 40 different species were recorded as entangled in ghost gear, or associated with it. This analysis also showed a huge gap in data from the Indian, Southern and Arctic Oceans, prompting the team to recommend that future studies focus on these areas.

Yet, two years later, there are still no data pertaining to the extent of prevalence of ghost gear off India’s coast. And data is crucial here, for the detrimental effects of these nets also spillover into other countries and oceans. Ghost nets are often ‘ghost fishers’. Ocean currents carry them for thousands of km across the ocean floor, ensnaring, injuring and drowning marine life and damaging live corals along the way. Discarded Indian and Thai fishing nets, for instance, have been fished out of Maldivian coasts, reports a study that examined 74 separate ghost net collections between 2013 and 2014.

The Hindu recently reported that scientists at Kochi’s Indian Council of Agricultural Research-Central Institute of Fisheries Technology studied ghost nets in Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However, the results of the report, which were submitted to the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the UN in April, have not been released yet. According to the scientists, the government is also currently preparing a national ghost net management policy.

While that would be an extremely welcome and timely move to tackle the growing ghost gear phenomenon, a larger question remains. When bigger violations, such as large vessels fishing where they are not supposed to, are not checked, would a policy on the management of ghost nets be implemented, asks Divya Karnad, a marine biologist. The effects of ghost nets are evident and tug at heartstrings. Images of turtles tangled in nylon and of beautiful blue oceans blemished by a mist-like white net floating about highlight the plight of marine life and prompt immediate action. But the consequences of overfishing, using nets of the smallest mesh size, and illegal fishing are far less visible, though more worrying. Entire fishing communities are affected by these actions, especially in developing countries like India where the demand for fish keeps rising.

Transforming used nets

But that does not mean that the problem of ghost gear should not be addressed. There are numerous innovative solutions to tackle it, if we can learn from projects across the world. In countries like Canada and Thailand, fishermen retain their used nets; these are recycled into yarn to craft socks and even carpet tiles. For the first time in a developing country, a gear-marking programme is being tested in Indonesia so that the trajectory of gear, if it drifts away, can be studied better. Outreach and education among fishing communities would be crucial along with policy-level changes.

In one instance in India, ghost nets hauled from Kerala’s Kollam have been used to pave roads. This shows that transformation is possible, though more efforts to make the process more organised across the over 7,500 km of India’s coasts, as well as inland water bodies, are the need of the hour.

aathira.p@thehindu.co.in

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 11:55:21 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/unclogging-our-oceans/article25252308.ece

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