Researchers comb Monterey Bay for ghost fishers

A reserach team uses a remotely
operated vehicle to look for lost fishing gear
Photo Credit: NOAA Monterey Bay

By Jane Lee
The Monterrey Herald, September 30, 2010

A research team led by NOAA’s Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary recently went in search of ghosts in the waters off Monterey.

They found them — or at least their gear.

Fishing lines, nets or traps lost or abandoned by fishermen can still snare animals, an occurrence known as ghost fishing.

Because the gear continues to work after the fishermen are long gone, marine animals can get caught or trapped in areas specifically set aside for their protection.

“Most of the gear we found was in marine protected areas,” said Karen Grimmer, deputy superintendent of the sanctuary.

Although they find gear inside and outside of marine protected areas, the kinds of gear they find tend to differ with location.

Grimmer said gear inside marine protected areas tends to be older, left before the areas were designated as protected. Newer abandoned gear tends to be found outside marine protected areas.

The newer gear is especially worrisome, she said, because it is more resilient than older gear.

Lost and abandoned fishing gear can float in the ocean for years. Lines and cables can drag along the bottom, gouging the sea floor and ripping up animals, while floating nets can entangle and drown marine mammals. Abandoned gear poses a danger to humans by creating underwater hazards for swimmers and divers.

Local dive shop manager Keith McNutt said the most common piece of equipment he comes across is broken fishing line.

“You learn to look for it and avoid it,” he said, but most divers carry a knife or scissors to cut themselves free if they get snagged.

Jim Barry, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, said he has been on research cruises where the tether connecting a remotely operated vehicle to the boat became entangled in abandoned fishing gear at the edge of Monterey Canyon.

Although debris on the seafloor is not a good thing, Barry said, there are communities of invertebrates that can settle on abandoned equipment, creating a collection of life in otherwise sparse areas of the ocean.

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