HONOLULU – “Ghost nets” from unknown origins flow among the currents of the Pacific, threatening sea creatures and littering the shoreline with tangled remains of what they kill.
Now, researchers are doing detective work to trace this harmful debris back to the fisheries and manufacturers – and it conducts extensive, in-depth analysis on tons of ghost traps.
A graduate student at Hawaii Pacific University and one of the study’s leading researchers, Drew McWhirter said the biggest concern is that abandoned gears continue to kill fish and other wildlife such as endangered Hawaiian monk seals, seabirds and turtles.
“These nets bulldoze over our reefs before hitting the shore,” McWhirter said. “They leave a path of destruction, take out the coral head, and can cause a lot of ecological damage.”
Ghosts trap dirty oceans around the world, but the Hawaiian Islands – along the Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the east and another gear of floating waste in the west – are an epicenter for marine waste.
Previous attempts to identify the origin of the trap have proved difficult because the debris comes from many countries and the webs have few, if any, unique identification marks or features.
Experts believe that many nets are accidentally lost, but boats sometimes dig nets to avoid being prosecuted for fishing illegally. Other fishermen cut the damaged traps instead of returning them to shore.
The Ghost Net study is being monitored by Jennifer Lynch, a research biologist at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, co-director of Hawaii Pacific University’s Center for Marine Debris Research.
“We are going to have a very challenging time … trying to identify it back to its source,” Lynch said. “And if we fail, … this is increased evidence for policy makers to see the importance of gear. Marking and potentially exposing those types of regulations.”
For Lynch, it’s not about pointing fingers. Rather, she hopes that the study, which will be presented first to the fishing industry, will help develop new ways to prevent damage to the marine environment.
“We are doing this study in a very forensic way where we are collecting as much evidence as possible so that we can present the best, most accurate story,” Lynch said.
The crew finds ghost nets from three sources: the main Hawaiian Islands, the Hawaiian Longline Tuna Fleet’s fishing grounds that often rattle the nets – and the shores of the uninhabited Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, which are part of the Papahanamokukeya National Maritime Monument.
An April cleanup campaign for Papahanaumokuakea – the largest protected environment in the United States and a UNESCO World Heritage Site – recovered nearly 50 tons (45 metric tons) of traps and other lost gear.
In a shed on the university’s campus, researchers separate bundles of fishing gear, taking into account the relationship between the objects. The samples are then taken to the laboratory for analysis.
“We really need a small sample here to really understand how it is manufactured,” said Raquel Korniuk, a research technician at the university.
Researchers look at about 70 different aspects of each piece of mesh, including its polymer type. “We see how it is twisted. Is it twisted versus braided? We are trying to see how many wires it has, the diameter of its twine, the shape of the reticular stretch,” Korniuk said.
The information is entered into a database, which will help scientists find patterns that may give rise to manufacturers and eventually to individual fisheries or nations.
Researchers have spent nearly a year collecting data and are expected to peer-review and publish this year.
Ghost gear has fish aggregation devices – or FADs – floating bundles of fishing vessels released into the sea to attract fish. The devices have receivers attached to satellites, but when they move out of specified areas of fishing, they are usually discarded.
Mike Conroy, president of West Coast Fisheries Consultants, works with purse seine and gillnet operators from California. He said that FAD is restricted in US waters and fishermen make every effort to prevent the loss of the nets.
“One of those webs is supposed to run an operator between 150 and 250 grand on average,” he said.
Conroy acknowledges that ghost gear is a problem. “These types of research activities will point the finger in the right direction,” he said. “I think what you will see is that West Coast fisheries are probably not contributing much.”
Researchers have already found debris from all corners of the Pacific, including Asian countries and the US West Coast.
According to a career fisherman, who now works for a net manufacturer in Washington State, the Ghost Net problem is with less developed countries that have few fishing regulations and sometimes buy or manufacture low quality nets. We do.
“Their products are weak,” said Brian Fujimoto, Net Executive Inc. sales executive in Bainbridge Island. “And if you look at the poly netting and ropes you’re getting, they’re all very inexpensive things.”
Fujimoto said that his company uses unique techniques, colors and other manufacturing techniques for its products, so they are easily identifiable.
Creating an industry standard, he said, “is only going to happen to more industrialized countries, for example, the US, Canada, Japan.”
Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist and professor at the Institute of Oceans and Fishing, University of British Columbia, said, “We kill fish for fishing and consumption, but these fish are lost without any reason to be killed by lost gear.” Go mention marine mammals and turtles and other animals that we like. “
“Pressing on this loss, which is very easily accepted, … is a good thing,” Pauly said.
Jonathan Moore, head assistant secretary of the Oceans and the Bureau of International Environmental and Scientific Affairs at the US State Department, said last year, “The biggest threats to illegal, undocumented and erratic fishing, sometimes associated with ghost gear.” One is. Sustainable use of our shared ocean resource. “
“Certainly, gear-marking guidelines and regulations should be a central pillar of all responsible fisheries management functions,” he said.
Although US and some international laws require markers to be identified on some fishing gear, such as crab pots and buoys, traps are not required to be marked.
Officials from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Department of Fisheries declined to be interviewed for this story, but said in an email: “NOAA Fishing is unaware of any regulations that have been, or are believed to be, regarding ghost traps Has been. We continue to work agency-wide on this international maritime debris problem. “
Follow Caleb Jones on Twitter: @CalebAP