Ghosts of the Sea - the high toll wreaked by lost netting

Fishing nets make up nearly half of the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans

Photograph: Case Kassenberg/courtesy of Ghost Fishing

Photograph: Case Kassenberg/courtesy of Ghost Fishing


Every year, an estimated 640,000 tonnes of lost fishing gear kills 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales as well as millions of birds, turtles and fish.

This ghost gear often drifts on currents around the oceans and eventually leads to so-called “ghost-fishing”. The fish that get entangled in the nets die. The dead fish attract other predators which are captured in the same nets and are often injured and starve to death. The ghost nets continue to catch many more creatures over decades.

Bas Poelmann from the Ghost Fishing Foundation came across lots of this ghost-fishing gear on a clean up in Killary Fjord last autumn.

“There’s a variety of species affected by lost lobster pots in Killary Fjord. Crabs and lobsters are still caught by lost gear even though the fisherman is no longer able to monitor this gear, but we also found several species of fish and conger eels in the pots and also a small shark species called dogfish,” said Poelmann.

The team of divers with Ghost Fishing Foundation removed 60 lobster pots from the seabed in Galway in 2018.

Fishing nets used to be made of fibres and more recently cotton. However nowadays nearly all fishing nets are made of artificial polyamides such as nylon. Nylon is not biodegradable and will remain in the environment for an indefinite amount of time.

Fishing nets make up nearly half of the plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, according to a recent survey by the Ocean Cleanup campaign.

Ghost fishing gear also pollutes local beaches.

Beaches such as the one beside South Park in Galway are littered with pieces of fishing nets. On a recent beach clean up by students of Coláiste Einde Secondary School, Galway, 15 bags of rubbish were collected. Baby wipes and nets were the main items found. Every piece of fishing net had to be detangled from seaweed before it could be put into the bags.

So why is there so much ghost fishing gear in our oceans? In some cases illegal fishermen dump their nets to avoid getting caught. More often though, fishermen lose their gear. Regular checks on fishing gear to make sure it won’t rip during rough weather would reduce the amount of ghost fishing gear in our oceans.

* Luke Dahler from Coláiste Einde Secondary School, Galway, was the winner of the An Taisce Young Reporters on the Environment 2019 award.

Young Reporters for the Environment is an international programme developed by the Foundation for Environmental Education. Photographs, articles and videos are submitted by secondary school students on litter and waste, climate, energy, water and biodiversity. The Environmental Education unit of An Taisce manages the project in Ireland as part of the Litter Less Campaign, an initiative of the Wrigley Foundation. In 2019, there were over 80 entries. To enter next year’s competition, contact Eoin Heaney at