Ghost Nets Hero

Reducing Marine Litter

Marine litter in numbers

  • 450  It takes around 450 years for a PET bottle to completely decompose.
  • 57  Marine animals get caught in pieces of plastic and die painful deaths. An estimated 57% of these incidents are caused by derelict fishing gear.
  • Pieces of plastic smaller than 5 mm in size are called microplastic ⅓  More than one-third of leatherback sea turtles have balls of plastic material in their stomach. They mistake them for jellyfish, the main source of food.
  • 1/3 More than one-third of leatherback sea turtles have balls of plastic material in their stomach. They mistake them for jellyfish, the main source of food.

Marine litter continues to be a major problem and threat to marine life in the Baltic Sea. Marine mammals, seabirds and fish die every year from entanglement or the ingestion of marine litter.

Over 80% of marine pollution comes from land-based activities. We’re working to remove the many tonnes of ghost nets from the Baltic and to raise awareness of the impact of plastic waste in the marine environment. From plastic bags to pesticidesmost of the waste we produce on land eventually reaches the oceans, either through deliberate dumping or from run-off through drains and rivers. 

The marine litter ending up in the Baltic Sea originates mainly from household-related waste (48% of the total sources) and waste generated by recreational or tourism activities (33% of the total sources). Consumer behaviour is the number one contributor to marine litter in the Baltic Sea. Around 130 tons of polyethene particles from personal care products are flushed down the household drains in the Baltic Sea catchment area each year! Marine debris or marine litter has long been a problem and a threat to marine life. Marine mammals, seabirds and fish die each year from being entangled in or ingesting marine litter. Often the marine litter is derelict nets and ropes or plastic packaging material and containers. Plastic strapping bands can also be dangerous for inquisitive marine animals like seals and dolphins causing cuts in their skin around their necks or fins. Many marine animals and seabirds can also mistake litter items for prey that can lead to chocking and blocking the breathing passages and stomach.

Ghost nets

WWF with a collaboration of experts, fishermen and divers have developed methods for removing lost fishing nets from the sea and shipwrecks on the seabed.

Ghost nets are addressed worldwide as a source of marine litter with extensive hazardous effects on the marine ecosystem. From 5.500 to 10.000 gillnets and trawl nets are lost every year. In 2016,  the MARELITT Baltic project was initiated as a response to the ghost net problem. It is a transnational initiative, funded by the EU, with participation from Sweden, Estonia, Poland and Germany. For the last years, the project team has been working to find a sustainable way to approach derelict fishing gear in the Baltic Sea.

The new, comprehensive knowledge generated by the MARELITT Baltic project has been condensed into this Baltic Sea Blueprint. The blueprint crystallises the most crucial requirements into step-by-step recommendations for addressing mitigation within each of the four activities. This blueprint distils the detailed project findings, which are available in 11 reports, into recommendations, lessons learned and best practices.

Using the ‘net fork’ (originally designed by WWF Poland for lost net retrieval), WWF collaborated with local fishers, the fisheries and cultural heritage authorities and government agencies to identify target areas. The combination of a fishing vessel and a local diving team who marked lost net positions known by the fisheries authorities proved highly successful. In total, 5 tonnes of derelict fishing gear (wet weight) were retrieved. In addition to trawl and gill nets, material brought up included old anchor chains, a fire hose, aluminium and copper cables, as well as a rusted ammunition shell. Hence, the ghost nets had not only continued to catch fish but had also attracted seabed waste in substantial quantities. As a next step, recycling tests will show whether the mixed material can be reused as part of the marine plastics recycling chain.

Plastics— an ocean menace

Every year 6.4 million tonnes of plastic, along with all the toxins they contain, pose a threat to sea life and ecosystems. Plastic is usually made of cellulose, carbon, petroleum, or natural gas. It consists of long-chain made up of many repeating molecular units. For the natural environment, plastic is a foreign body and does not biodegrade. Pieces smaller than 5mm in size are called microplastic. Sources for microplastics in the ocean include cosmetic products, textiles such as fleece jackets, rubbish washed from land and ships that dump their plastic waste in the ocean (even though it is prohibited).

The fishing industry accounts for 10% of marine debris. Nets and fishing gear get lost or are thrown away into the ocean. These “ghost nets” continue trapping fish for many decades. Plastic can transport plant and animal species across great distances to other regions. These passengers unsettle the balance of the sensitive ecosystems of their destinations. Plastic can also cover coral, marine sponges and mussel beds, preventing species from populating them and cutting of marine organisms from the exchange of oxygen.

Toxins end up on the perpetrators’ plate

Plastics often contain additives that lend the product desirable properties – but can damage animals and humans. Bisphenol A, phthalates and brominated flame retardants can adversely affect sexual development, damage genetic material or cause cancer. Pesticides and other toxins that are released into the ocean area are also absorbed by the plastic.

All of these toxins penetrate the fatty tissue of marine organisms and end up in the food chain. Particularly at risk are all those animals at the end of the food chain: sea birds, seals, whales or sharks – and not least of all, humans.

You can help
  • Avoid plastic packaging, plastic bags and disposable items. Put your waste where it belongs.
  • Don’t use toothpaste and cosmetics containing plastic microbeads.
  • Inform yourself about toxins in plastic and avoid, in particular, products made of PVC (polyvinyl chloride) and PC (polychloride).
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Last modified 17/03/20

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