Fishing gear isn’t just deadly when there’s a fisherman at the other end of the line. Lost and abandoned equipment continues to kill, rampaging beneath the ocean’s surface, tangling fish, drowning seabirds and smothering reefs. This ghost gear haunts common and endangered species indiscriminately.

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According to a UN Environment and FAO report, another 640,000 tons of ghost gear is added to the undersea dump each year.

In Southeast India, workers at the Suganthi Devadason Marine Research Institute have formed a team of ghost-net busters to reverse this damage.  The Gulf of Mannar includes 560 square kilometers of islands and shallow coastal waters. Since being declared a marine park in 1986, the live coral reefs have shrunk from 110 to 80 square kilometers. Between climate change bleaching the coral and destructive fishing practices, the ghost-net busters face daunting challenges. They must manually remove nets, being careful not to further damage the coral.

Related: California teen finds golf balls are a major source of plastic waste in our oceans

“Through removal of ghost nets, we hope not only to help conserve corals but also to support the small-scale fishermen who depend mainly on the reef-associated fishery resources for their livelihoods,” said Patterson Edward, director of the research institute. Edward is part of a team of nine marine scientists and three support staff who survey, monitor and restore reefs in the Gulf of Mannar. Finding and retrieving ghost nets is one part of their work.

The problem goes way beyond the gulf. Ghost nets “are killing megafauna in the Indian Ocean and are a transboundary problem, because nets from India find their way to other countries in the region such as the Maldives and kill many iconic species such as turtles, rays and sharks,” said Gabriel Grimsditch, an expert in marine ecosystems at UN Environment.

While aerial views of floating garbage patches are all too familiar, many people have yet to learn about ghost gear. “It’s not just plastic bags and bottles negatively impacting marine life and the blue economy; it’s estimated that by weight, ghost gear makes up between 46 to 70 percent of all macro plastics in our ocean,” said Grimsditch.

+ UN Environment and FAO

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