A deadly necklace of nets and hooks

Image by Xandi Kreuzeder

One of the lucky ones

On July 1st 2018 the BBC reported on a seal called Puri that was found by a lifeguard beached off the coast of Norfolk, England. Around its neck was fishing wire which left an open septic wound. The abandoned wire that caused this injury was an extremely thin nylon fishing line that acted like a really slow cheese wire going deeper and deeper into the fat of her neck over time. Alison Cramp, one of Puri’s rescuers, said the seal “must have rolled and rolled continually in the sea trying to get it off but it’s getting tighter and tighter.”

The recovery of this little seal will take a substantial amount of time and her life will consist of a mixture of painkillers and antibiotics for months to come.

It is impossible to know where the single piece of wire that did such massive damage came from or how long it had been floating in the ocean. Its presence is evidence of a phenomenon known as “Ghost Fishing”, where countless abandoned nets are still catching fish in some form with no human to benefit, only a blue grim reaper of death drifting in the open sea.

It is further concerning then that we don’t really know how much of this plastic line, also known as “Ghost Gear”, is out there still collecting fish in the ocean in total. Yet we are clearly starting to see its impact. While it’s difficult to know exact figures, a “2012 report from World Society for the Protection of Animals indicates that between 57,000 and 135,000 whales are entangled by plastic marine debris every year in addition to the inestimable – but likely millions – of birds, turtles, fish and other species affected by plastic marine debris.”, reports Parley for the Oceans, a company that addresses major threats towards our oceans.

Image by BBC/ Seal and Shore Watch

While we do hear about seals washing up on different shores being rescued, often with torn up necks fighting to stay alive, what about the seals who remain in these “ghost nets”?

In the ocean, ghost nets are frequently hard to find and capture, and the chances of cutting seals free are even less likely. Seals which approach the nets to eat dead fish already entangled are themselves at risk of getting caught and dying, which in turn attracts larger predators such as sharks and whales to their corpses, who then become trapped themselves.

The National Marine Fisheries Service reported an average of 11 entangled large whales per year from 2000 to 2012 along the US West Coast.

Where does Ghost Gear come from?

When fishing boats throw their netting overboard to catch fish, mostly they recall them full of the shoal they aimed for. But from time to time the large nets either become old, damaged, or caught in a sea storm — taken deep into their not-so-final resting place.

More commonly nets become tangled up on a number of items underwater from coral to rocks. The netting becomes very tricky or even impossible to draw back on to the boats. Crews have few choices in how to deal with the situation of their boat being currently attached to a rock, and some fishermen cut the net and sail away leaving their equipment floating in the ocean. The Food and Agriculture Organization claim that at least 10% of all marine litter is made of these nets.

Image by WAPO

The nets are often made of artificial polyamides like nylon which are toxic and never biodegrade. The nets after many years may break down into smaller parts, and though this is unlikely, it has the potential to cause the creation of microplastics — a large-scale problem for smaller marine life, and in turn ourselves as some fish we eat is now found to have plastic in it too.

It is certainly worth reviewing if we need to use these materials to make the nets in the first place as early nets were often woven from grasses, flaxes and other fibrous plant material such as cotton, and are still in existence yet rarely used. This is another case of plastic being cheaper and easier to produce, and the lower prices being paid by us are at a high cost to marine life.

Ghost Seal

On the very same day that we read the story about Puri, we completed our newest piece of the Skeleton Sea collection: ‘Ghost Seal’. We knew we had to name the ghost seal Puri after this brave animal.

Image by Xandi Kreuzeder

‘Ghost Seal’ focuses on one of our three main concerns: marine pollution. It expresses a seal’s struggle against ghost fishing and marine debris. The eyes of the seal capture the moment when it feels so helpless, tangled and unable to escape, that it knows it is going to die and is already a ghost.

The mixed media sculpture uses wires, nets and real marine litter we found washed up on the beaches of Ericeira, Portugal near our workshop. We thought it was important to see the wire going deep into the neck of the seal, as this accurately shows the strangulation occurring and reflects how when a seal struggles more and more the ropes get tighter and tighter, not only stopping the seal from feeding and moving, but also breathing. Unless the seal is cut free by a human with a knife, it will almost certainly die of starvation, strangulation or dehydration.

This has not gone unnoticed

Activists, change makers and local residents collecting litter are fighting back.

Seal and Shore watch, the group which is caring for Puri are “dedicated to the wellbeing and protection of our seals and other marine life along our beautiful coastline.”

Parley for the Oceans have started the Global Clean Up International Network which consists of partners working to “remove plastic debris from coastlines and intercept it in remote areas, where no solid waste management exists”.

Bionic Yarn have found a way to reuse ghost nets by collecting them by the tonne, melting them down and spinning them out into new yarn to make new fabric. This and other similar projects find a way of turning garbage into a commodity in order to shift perception.

Recognizing the importance of talking about this issue with the future generation who’ll inherit it, author (Skeleton Sea collaborator and author of this post), Nicola Leigh has written a book specifically for younger readers named Blue Spaghetti. By following the story of Albert Ross The Albatross, her aim is to give concerned adults or children a tool to open up a conversation together about ghost nets, as it is not always easy to find the right words to describe their terrible effects on children’s favorite animals.

The World Animal Protection Organisation (WAPO) have set up the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) “which brings together governments, private-sector companies, and non-governmental organisations to tackle the problem”.

Fishing for Energy have collected 2.8m pounds of fishing gear from bins placed in 42 communities across the US since 2008.

The best news to end ghost fishing that came out of 2018 so far was from the European Parliament Fisheries Committee in England who have overwhelmingly backed Conservative MP and animal welfare campaigner, John Flack’s campaign to reduce the number of abandoned fishing nets.

The EU must make tackling ghost fishing [as] part of its new plastics strategy. Today’s vote has given my campaign the backing it needs to put this hidden problem on the EU’s plastic waste agenda. We cannot miss this opportunity.”

The proposals recommend that the EU and Member States:

  • Set up port reception schemes where financial incentives are offered to fishermen for returning unwanted nets.
  • Incentivise vessels to use technology to track and if necessary retrieve their lost nets.
  • Support research into biodegradable nets to speed up their development.

Ghost fishing is a hidden problem doing untold damage to our oceans. Fishermen do understand the value of our oceans and respect them, but their lost and discarded fishing nets continue to plague our seas.”

You can find more out about him and his ghost fishing campaign here.

Image by Nicola Leigh

So how can we help combat this issue at home?

We don’t typically go out with fishing nets for a day at the beach – so how can we help?

We can change our diet: by not personally consuming fish, you will not be contributing to the industry. However, this isn’t for everyone and doesn’t remove the waste we currently have floating in the sea.

By becoming a member of a charity such as Surfers Against Sewage, you can stay updated on news around this subject and get involved in local beach clean-ups.

However, the truth is that this is a substantial problem without a direct way for us to reduce our use of fishing line, like we could our shampoo bottles, toothbrushes or shopping bags.

As Mike Baker, CEO of the WAPO says, “It’s so easy to highlight the problem, you can show pictures with seals being caught in nets with their heads being gouged, but actually solutions are what’s important”. So what are they Mike?

The problem is with the manufacture of these nets, the rules in place about their removal, and resources for disposal, recycling, and marine rescue. Unfortunately, these solutions are not entirely on us as consumers, and there is still little we can do daily other than help via our food choices and protest the places where we do frequent, such as supermarkets.

The GGGI is calling on supermarkets to “play a role in fighting ghost gear by demanding their fish suppliers change the way they operate” and you can sign their petition and receive email updates to monitor the GGGI and see if their dream of seeing net recycling systems appearing at every port comes true.

Small gestures big deaths

Ropes thrown into the sea, a used hook that drifts away, a piece of unusable plastic that by carelessness, recklessness or laziness is floating, looking for a victim.

Nothing can destroy it, it will bat through the ocean until it finds one martyr.

Drowning, suffocation, destruction and death. A human product becomes an invisible killer that does not allow escape.

A necklace of nets and hooks embellishing a death.

Look at the fear in their eyes, observe the desperation in their body, feel how life escapes little by little, maybe next time do not cut and throw away ropes that can take away so many lives … maybe you pick them up when you step over them on the beach or find them floating in the water.

Maybe you are the person who can change everything …


Puri is now in the care of the RSPCA and you can track her at  @rspca_east_winch on Instagram. Many thanks to @sealandshorewatch for keeping us updated on her condition.

You can still visit our exhibition in the main lobby of the Lisbon Oceanário and see other pieces from the collection until the end of the year.

|| Keep The Oceans Clean! ||