Home Environment Ghost Gear: The Indiscriminate Death of a Species

Ghost Gear: The Indiscriminate Death of a Species

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The crew with three traps

Starvation, injury, and death are all too real for a staggering 380,000 marine animals due to abandoned, discarded and lost nets, lines, and traps in our oceans. According to World Animal Protection they estimate an average of 1.4 million pounds or 640,000 tons of gear are added to the seas and oceans across the globe yearly. These statistics alone may appear overwhelming, yet they are simply the iceberg to a daunting dilemma; discarded plastic alone accounts for 12,000,000 tons of the garbage in the ocean. Hundreds of thousands of birds, whales, seals, sea lions, crabs, sharks, sea turtles, and dolphins (the list is exhaustive) are mutilated, injured, or killed by this gear. Many of the marine animals are already facing extinction or near extinction.

By Selene Muldowney

This abandoned and otherwise discarded fishing and crabbing gear, known as ghost gear, can be found in every ocean and sea on the planet. This gear continues to fish indiscriminately despite lack of human intervention; made mostly from plastic, the impact extends well beyond marine species to include habitat, human safety, and the economic viability of a region. The vast majority of the nets are made from plastic monofilament which snags on rocky outcrops, ledges, and coral, often attached to a lead weight. Crab pots, nets, and traps also cause significant damage. NOAA calls the traps “self-baiting” since they trap animals then those animals die attracting predators until the pot or trap is buried. The trap itself is attached to a buoy by a polyethylene line that poses additional threats to both whales and boats.

Fishing lines, crab pots, and traps are truly the ghosts that continue to haunt our oceans; the challenge is to find these ghosts, underwater, half buried in silt and substrate, with little to no visual assistance. The marine animals may hold some of the answers; however, the most effective manner to seek these ghosts is to follow their trail: from fishermen to ocean.

The daunting task, one man’s passion, and a community of volunteers; Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) may hold a key to tracking these elusive invaders of the sea.

Founded in 2000 and based in Orange County, California, Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) is a marine conservation organization and became a registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2002. After years of diving in the ocean and seeing an incredible array of derelict gear, damaged environs, and injured or dead marine animals, Kurt Lieber, President and Founder, sought to make a difference. The urgency to mitigate this issue was escalated as Lieber saw the continued rise of discarded gear in the ocean as well as garbage threatening the ecosystems and survival of marine species.

Lieber’s passion for his work is easily recognized as he describes how he started the alliance and why he felt so drawn to take action. His heart spoke to him and despite having to finance the alliance’s initial startup costs, his mind had been set and he persevered.

“I began this journey as I watched the oceans and seas begin to fill with this waste and the derelict gear. We weren’t treating the ocean with respect – the ocean is like Yellowstone – it is our earth’s national park. I just wanted to make a difference,” states Lieber.

In 2003 the organization got their first boat working, a 40 foot boat generously gifted to ODA by Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. It took three years to properly outfit the vessel for its intended purpose. Since 2004, when they began removing debris in earnest, ODA located and removed 28,184 lbs. of nets, 371 traps, 16,029 lbs. of miscellaneous debris, 7760 lbs. of plastics, and 193 mylar balloons. He encourages volunteer divers to report abandoned fishing gear sites then sets his goal to retrieve the gear. Using the boat as a dive platform, the divers descend at each location, cut the gear loose, and float it to the surface. Animals found trapped are carefully liberated and returned to the water. Presently they have three boats, one 55 foot vessel called Mr. Barker’s LegaSea. The other two vessels are smaller and used as support.

Volunteers are encouraged to participate by first visiting their website to determine their level of involvement. ODA encourages all divers and folks on the water to report derelict gear or other hazards that may be causing environmental damage or pose a threat to animal and/or human life. Divers with open water certifications can help with surface water assistance, while lifting nets and retrieving gear underwater requires a rescue diver certification. The teams use underwater scooters which aid in the process significantly.

Kim Cardenas, volunteer diver from California and an active member on the board of advisors since 2016, joined the organization after she realized the potential for combining her love for diving with a greater environmental cause.

Cardenas has taken on many roles as part of the ODA including removal of debris, volunteer orientation and training, and teaching the next generation about the threats to the ocean. She elaborates, “I participate as a diver, going out on the boat and diving down to locate and remove abandoned fishing gear such as lobster traps and nets. We also remove other debris, as from sunken boats, that can damage the reefs and ocean bottom. I have also participated as a diver for harbor clean ups. I have also recruited and done orientation for divers new to the organization.”

“We have been studying this for so long that we now have a good idea where the fishermen are leaving their traps. We return season after season and look for what is left behind. Fishermen lose about 10-15 percent of their traps – and they are not cheap to replace! We want to improve ourselves, however, have been successful in well over 80% of our trips. It is called ghost gear because it is hard to find underwater – it isn’t like searching on land and spotting the debris,” explains Lieber.

Cardenas adds, “Each recovery mission usually includes 4-6 divers – we work in teams and safety is our priority. No net or trap is worth taking chances in hazardous conditions. Communication while on the dive is critical.”

Lieber is always encouraged to continue his work, requesting grants and working with local dive charters in the area. The organization is located in Huntington Beach, California and mainly concentrate their efforts between the Mexican Border to the United States and Santa Barbara. In the past few years they have also established a positive rapport with Matt Zimmerman, owner of Island Divers Hawaii located in Oahu. Zimmerman, an avid supporter of the work Lieber was doing, offered his charter service, at a substantial discount, to load up divers and seek out debris. Zimmerman and his team often led their own debris removal opportunities, teaming up once a month to work with Lieber was an easy match. It is important to note that divers who participate with this monthly endeavor must be rescue certified.

While commercial lobster traps are the significant source of ghost gear up and down the California coast, Hawaii has a slightly different problem. Fishing lines have become the derelict gear; fishermen get their lines caught on coral or rocks, cut the line, and leave it – often attached to lead weights. The mantas, sharks, and sea turtles get caught in these lines while the lead (so far over 1,000 lbs. retrieved) not only hurts the coral and substrate but is extremely toxic to the marine life.

More recently, ODA began working with two other dive shops and charters in Hawaii: Jacks Diving Locker, located in Kona, recently held a joint clean-up effort with ODA at the Honokohau Harbor, and Kohala Divers, located in Kawaihae, as they aim to host quarterly boat cleanups to remove floating debris, fishing lines, and ghost gear.

A little over a year ago Ken Staples, ODA Volunteer Diver from Oahu, joined ODA and his team of volunteers during a sponsored ODA cleanup in East Oahu.

Staples reiterates Lieber’s passion, “I was privileged to meet Kurt while on this dive and instantly wanted to be more involved.” So much so he became an active member on the Board of Advisors and as a point person in Hawaii.

He further explains why he was moved to participate, “We have cleaned up thousands of pounds of debris and have over 70 volunteers (and growing) involved in our efforts here on the islands. We all need to do our part in protecting and preserving our oceans. Whether it’s taking time to participate in a cleanup dive, a beach cleanup, or simply deciding to eliminate single use plastics we can make a difference and set an example for others to follow. We need to be vocal about the huge problem of trash and derelict gear that pollutes our ocean and support those groups like the ODA that is working diligently to make a difference. Mother ocean deserves this.”

Lieber has turned this passion into a fulltime career hoping to channel his efforts toward encouraging fishermen to voluntarily change their methods and/or create legislation to effect change. One way he plans to set his long-term goals into action is to document the largest concentration of traps and publish this information to arm people with knowledge. Lighthawk, an organization that began with one man and a borrowed plane in 1979 has become a force for conservation. They mobilize volunteer pilots, photographers, environmental experts, and storytellers to make images, collect data, inform the public and share their experiences about some of our environment’s most critical issues, landscapes and wildlife. Lieber teamed up with them to catalogue his findings from the air. They flew from San Diego to Bodega Bay in Northern California. This process of documenting the coastline offered ODA an aerial opportunity to concentrate their efforts. Once on ground, Lieber returned to the sites identified as high concentrations and began GPS tracking those sites and the gear. They are still in the process of completing this project; however, the information to date is published on their website.

Interestingly, ODA is one of only two organizations allowed to remove debris from the Channel Island National Marine Sanctuary. With the endorsement of the California Department of Fish & Game as well as local authorities, ODA’s dedicated team of technical divers are hard at work, seeking to make coastal waters safer and cleaner for marine wildlife – as well as humans – by permanently removing ocean debris and checking for illegal fishing activities.

In addition to the invaluable work at sea, ODA also works on land to educate the public about the need for clean and healthy oceans. They offer educational opportunities and presentations at schools, dive club meetings, festivals, and local events. They have also taken strides to reach out to the seafood restaurants and fishing community to encourage them to become better stewards of the earth. Lieber has placed his heart and soul into fulfilling their mission where communities work together to create solutions to ensure marine ecosystems can exist free from harm caused by human debris.

“No matter how little or big – whether banning straws or tacking derelict nets – we have to realize that the oceans are not our dumping ground – and with our actions we can make a measured difference. We allow eight million tons of plastic into our oceans – eight million opportunities to change the chemistry of the water, injure or hurt marine life, and ultimately hurt ourselves. The effects of our actions are widespread,” Lieber emphasizes and ultimately leaves us with a decision to work together to solve this disaster we are creating – or ignore it and wait for what is inevitable – a barren ocean.

For more information and to participate please visit www.oceandefenders.org