Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 May 2019

Abandoned fishing nets pose huge threat to UAE's marine life, say experts

The UN Environment Programme estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes of dumped nets enters the world’s oceans each year

A team of volunteers from Divers Down UAE pictured during a recent beach clean-up event.
A team of volunteers from Divers Down UAE pictured during a recent beach clean-up event.

The UAE’s ban on nets that fish indiscriminately and are more likely to become lost at sea could not have come soon enough.

That is according to experts who say abandoned fishing gear is posing almost as great a threat to marine life as plastic debris.

Diving instructors and environmental activists have said that unclear regulations and difficulty monitoring fishing practices has caused abandoned fishing equipment — or ghost gear- to wreak havoc on the country’s marine environment.

“It has now become one of the biggest problem for our ocean together with plastic,” said Michela Colella of Divers Down UAE, a diving centre in Fujairah.

“The biggest issue is that it looks like there are no regulations. It has also become more common to put these nets very close to the shore and the nets are not marked.”

Placing nets closer to shore poses a danger to swimmers and can strangle corals reefs which provide a home to at least 25 per cent of all marine species.

“I was recently diving in the Khor Fakkan area and I saw a turtle with metres of fishing nets around her neck and dead rays caught in abandoned nets,” Ms Colella said.

This week, the UAE strengthened its campaign to preserve marine life by banning the use of gargoor nets — a domed fishing cage traditionally used in the Gulf — in Abu Dhabi waters and launching a 12-year plan that aims to restore the country’s depleted fish stocks through stronger legislation, research and building artificial reefs.

The ban was likely prompted by a series of high profile fishing incidents, including the deaths of five dugongs last year, which are protected under UAE law and had become entangled in fishing nets.

Ahmed Al Hashmi, acting executive director, terrestrial and marine biodiversity sector, at Environment Agency — Abu Dhabi said gargoor cages were contributing to the mounting issue of abandoned gear in the UAE’s waters.

“We recently did a clean-up campaign and people who dived also saw gargoors and nets. Dugongs and sea turtles can get entangled in nets,” he said.

“During our last survey with research vessels, we noticed that in every trip we could have taken up old gargoors or inactive gargoors in most of the locations.”

Like other nets, the gargoors are deposited in one location but strong winds, such as the shemal, and currents can cause them to become lost.

“The problem is that they accumulate a lot of fish inside — some are endangered fish and found rarely in these waters. It is like a dead cage. Everything enters.

“The other problem with those traps is that they last a long time and will not disappear in a few months,” he said.

Made of durable, synthetic fibres, ghost gear can take up to 600 years to break down and continue to “ghost fish”, drown seabirds and smother reefs for many years after they are lost.

Abandoned nets are a global issue with ocean currents carrying them long distances.

The UN Environment Programme estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 metric tonnes of ghost gear enters the world’s oceans each year.

According to World Animal Protection, an international non-profit animal welfare organisation, more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles get caught in abandoned or lost fishing nets, lines and traps each year.

Proposed solutions to tackling the crisis include biodegradable netting, GPS tracking and offering incentives to fishermen to return their nets at the end of their use.

The Ministry of Climate Change and the Environment banned the dumping of nets in the sea or on the beach, saying fishermen must secure one end of the net to the boat.

“The penalty for discarding fishing gear in the sea is a written warning for first-time offenders, a Dh1,000 fine for second-time offenders, and a one-month suspension of the boat license for third-timers,” said Mohammed Al Zaabi, director of Environmental Compliance at the ministry.

However, illegal fishing remains an issue as sometimes fishermen will dump their equipment to evade detection and penalties.

“In other countries there have been initiatives of tagging gear with GPS devices to help in the fight against ghost gear. This is becoming more and more affordable,” said Ms Colella.

“Technology has evolved but when we talk about fishing nets it has only evolved only in terms of becoming better at trapping fish and not in reducing the harmful impact to the ocean.”

She suggested measures be taken locally to reduce the damage caused by the nets once they are lost in the sea.

“You can make fishing nets more biodegradable or incorporate biodegrable panels into traps so they no longer catch and kill animals,” she said.

“A ghost net can kill marine life for centuries if it’s not discovered.”

Updated: March 7, 2019 07:07 PM

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