The Ghost Nets – of the oceans and of our minds

All over the world administrators both public and private face a most unique problem. It is identified today as the proverbial ‘bog down’ that is experienced as a result of the overemphasis upon the everyday nitty-gritties of life. To be fair these nitty-gritties are of paramount importance. After all how can one worry about the copious realities affecting the world’s oceans such as Ghost Nets, without ensuring three square meals are provided on the home front and the files in the In-tray are transferred to the Out-tray come the end of one’s 8 hour work shift. However, for all those individuals who feel overburdened engulfed by the complexity of daily life it is important to take a step-back, flex ones arms, open wide one’s eyes and focus beyond the computer screen which so often provides us with a cascade of distractions. Thus, if one is ready, let’s dwell in to the dilemma of the ghost net.

The ocean in the Post World War II era has been a source of conflict (continued hostilities in the South China Sea)and conversely, a beacon of hope and unity as was evident through the decision to establish the International Seabed Authority to manage resources of the ocean bed. This cauldron of complexity can be attributed to humanities over reliance upon ocean-based resources, as it is impossible for modern consumerist life styles to be maintained without the sustained extraction of resources both organic to the inorganic. The crises which are associated with the sea can be attributed to what is extracted from the sea and the waste humans return to sea both intended and unintended. Some issues such as ocean acidification and the pacific garbage vortex have received, and correctly, a great deal of global publicity. However, Ghost Nets – due to the lack of research surrounding it – have not received as much attention and unlike other issues which are systemic in nature, ghost nets are more localized in their impact. This is especially so in the oceans of South Asia and in effect Sri Lanka.


Ghost Nets of the Indian Ocean


Ghost Nets, are fishing nets which are classified as being lost, abandoned or discarded. Its detrimental impact on marine life is due to its capacity to entangle small fish species which in turn attract larger predators such as turtles, dolphins, sharks and whales who starve to death or die of exhaustion when entangled by the nets, which unironically have been designed to prevent the escape of sea creatures. These nets smother the coral reefs which are critical for the maintenance of a healthy marine ecosystem and additionally lead to the spread of diseases, parasites and invasive species. Overtime and through the impact of its sheer number the overall fisheries management system breaks down. When fishing boat rotors get damaged by these drifting nets and raise fishermen’s overhead costs, they attempt to cover it by taking irrational risks on the high seas and ignoring fisheries management practices advised by governments such as the release of juvenile fish for the management of fish stock. If one reads of the overkill of fish with economic value one must keep in mind that ghost nets, especially in our part of the world, have played some role and the rise of demand cannot be unconditionally faulted for the overkill.

The clean-up costs surrounding ghost nets according to the Olive Ridely Foundation based in the Maldives are considerably high.  The increase in costs is contributed to by ocean currents which carry these nets the world over and when stranded on the high seas it is very unlikely, unless a concentrated effort is made, these nets will ever be recovered and may lead to the death of multiple generations of marine animals over the decades and even centuries. These nets also impact the tourist industry for many of the high-end tourists who frequent beaches of the tropics are dissuaded by the lack of coastal maintenance to preserve the pristine coastlines that are highly sort. However, in talking of the economics surrounding ghost nets, it must be noted that the complete magnitude of the issue is relatively unknown and is very likely that it will never be fully understood.Though this is a consideration which impacts Sri Lanka’s tourist and fisheries industry, it’s disheartening to note that as a country we have failed to take significant steps towards addressing this issue even-though our neighbour the Maldives have done so, by banning the use of net based fishing in the exclusive economic zone of the state.


Contemplation in ‘bite-size’ pieces


The nature of humanity is such that, sometimes the sheer size of the problem has a paralyzing effect, even upon those with the means to take action. Therefore, it’s imperative that this problem be broken into ‘bite-size’ pieces so that is may be better understood. In 2013, the Olive Ridley Project came across 107 individual cases of ghosts nets in the Maldives from which 54 nets reported the entanglement of turtles with a total of 66 sea turtles found either alive or recently diseased. Furthermore, 77% of the turtles which were found were juveniles as they tend to mistake ghost nets for algae clusters which the young turtles depend on to survive the high seas. Efforts to preserve and protect sea turtles is substantial in India, Sri Lanka and Maldives, however in looking at the percentage of juveniles lost one can raise the most self-evident question. Is the mammoth effort taken to protect these turtles on land from human and other threats by conservationists of any real use if they are to be so easily lost to human devices at sea? If the percentage of turtles lost due to ghost nets is this great, conservation would have not served its purpose drawing questions regarding the viability of the entire endeavour.

The three main fishing techniques used to fish are the purse-seine technique, drifting gill nets and trawling. It is widely suspected that it is from these three sources that the ghost nets are said to originate. Adding to this though officially unconfirmed it is suspected that merchant ships and illegal fishing operations contribute to the ghost nets issue and this trend is deduced to be on the rise as weak enforcement mechanisms are endemic to low and middle-income countries such as ours.


A return to real life


Research conducted into ghost nets are still at an early stage and it would be foolish to assume the very worst without more time-informed studies into the matter.  However, as most assumptions made regarding human activity upon the environment tend to hold true; through the simple use of the theory of averages it can be assumed that the impact ghost nets are assumed to have are sadly true. What is expected of any concerned and dutiful citizen is to keep alert for these items and take individual action as oppose to simply complaining to idle ears regarding the inefficiencies of the local municipality, but let’s be reasonable, in our hectic lives when does one find the time to go to the beach, let alone spend that precious time collecting some dirt riddled net?

The main purpose of this article was to simply inform the public regarding the effect of our mass consumerist life style upon marine eco-systems. This is a very-tall order needing a high degree of empathy which transcends already complex inter-human relations to even more complex inter-life form relations. To assume that one article could make an instantaneous change in the minds sets of the few hundred who will read this article is at the most very hopeful. Thus, in taking a pragmatic world view, if this article simply enables the reader even for a moment to take a breath, open ones minds-eye and remember that there is a whole world beyond the horizon, which is intrinsically connected to ones-self though it may be hard to comprehend how, would be achievement enough.

Humans are unquestionably the undisputed king-pins of the current epoch’s food-chain, thanks to our ability to muster reason and convert inventions to innovations. However, it would be wise to remember the words of Socrates, when the Delphic oracle proclaimed him the wisest man in Athens, “man was wisest, who knew that he knew little”. It is critical that the reader recognize that as a species we command reason quite well, however humanity is still susceptible to cognitive failure and the greatest among them is as Albert Bartlett pointed out, “the human races inability to understand the exponential effect”. I fear humanity face a literal as well as a metaphorical ghost net problem, where the deficiencies of our minds and habits will be recognized as a critical consideration only when the tipping point is too close to avert.

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