It takes 600 years for discarded fishing line to decompose. There is hardly any other form of litter in the ocean that takes so long to decompose and what makes this form of litter especially problematic (other than it's lifespan) is how easily it kills marine life and how difficult it is to see.
Most of the time this litter is not washed up on the beach and easy to pick up, it is below the water surface, damaging, killing and wreaking havoc for hundreds and hundreds of years. The problem has become so big that entire organizations have been developed and numerous research reports published solely to address the growing (and largely invisible) problem of Ghost Fishing.
This week (September 19 2015) is the annual Beach Clean up in South Africa (which is great, but we think that everyday should be beach clean up day) where members of the public get together to clean up litter off our beaches. Trash in our oceans is a huge problem (we recently read a report that indicated that over 90% of all sea birds have ingested plastic at some stage) .....it's a frightening problem.
But what we have noticed over the years as an even bigger problem along the north coast of KwaZulu-Natal is discarded fishing line. We say a "bigger problem" because at first glance you simply do not see the problem, put on a mask and snorkel and enter a rock pool in out tidal areas and you'll see what we are talking about. No one comes along to clean this off the beaches....ever...and it's there for the next 600 years!
Collected in about one hour from a tidal pool, no more than 20m wide
To give you an idea of the scale, the picture above is the sheer volume of fishing line that came out of a single tidal pool after about 30-60 minutes clearing with a group of volunteers. The sea was rough on this day, so I don't think we actually got 20% of what was in this particular area. From the surface, all looks OK, the rock pools look beautiful, stick your head in the water and the problem becomes very apparent.....and it's largely invisible to the general public.
Fishing line, what it does ...the bad and the ugly (nothing good here)
This photo (above) taken near the uMngeni Estuary in Durban by Pieter Burger shows a Wooly Necked Stork entangled in fishing line and dead. This must have been a horrific, slow, painful death. Caused by one thing, a careless fisherman who thought it was OK to just leave his discarded fishing line in the water.
We are very blessed along the KZN North Coast to have a thriving population of corals. One of the biggest threats to corals however is discarded fishing line. The line gets entangled in the coral, algae starts to grow and the coral is quickly smothered and dies. All hard corals are protected species in South Africa, their presence along our coastline should be cherished but sadly, not, we estimate as much as 20-50% of corals we find in the shallower tidal pools of the Ballito area have some sort of fishing line damage to them
Although this Moray Eel probably got hooked and tried to escape by spinning itself....it ended up having a pretty grim death. Strangulation by discarded fishing line.....and not a great sight on a beach for anyone to see.
Here Ocean conservationist and photographer Juan Oliphant was diving when he and his group stumbled on a startling discovery. Just 30m from the shore, they found a dead, young green sea turtle. Fishing line, which had snagged on the reef, was tangled all around the turtle's body, trapping it underwater and keeping it from coming up for air. Sad, unnecessary.
So what is the solution
There are no quick fixes for Ghost Fishing and discarded fishing line. The problem will stay with us for hundreds of years still, even if we stop using monofilament fishing line tomorrow (which will never happen) - but there are so ways you can help
- If you have friends or family who are recreational marine fishermen, please speak to them about the problem, encourage them to make a concerted effort to leave nothing behind. It is difficult, if your hook gets snagged, what can you do? Well you have two choices, leave it there to kill something or be responsible and do everything you can to get it loose before breaking / cutting your line.
- If you go down to the rocky shores, take a small knife or scissors along and remove any fishing line you may find. Especially at low tides when a lot of the fishing line is exposed and visible. Be careful not to damage any coral or other marine life that the line may be entangled around
- Talk to friends, family, make sure they know the impacts of discarded fishing line (and other trash) ....perhaps (we live in hope) when people see and understand the damage they are doing, they will try stop doing it.
- If you are a member of the fishing community, perhaps there are methods, tools or something that has not yet been thought of that could help alleviate this problem? If there is, we would love to hear from you and find ways to get the word out there. We are pretty certain that no fisherman enjoys loosing his / her fishing line, so there must be a way to keep it to an absolute minimum? Perhaps this is a challenge to fisherman, come up with some solution, gadget, technique that we can be shared with other fishermen?
And finally, don't forget.....everyday is beach clean up day. If you're taking a stroll, take some time to pick up one, two, three, maybe more pieces of trash, it may seem small and insignificant, but if someone had stopped to pick up that fishing line that killed that Wooly-necked Stork, then it would have been very significant for the stork, you just never know :)