x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

'Ghost nets' threat to marine life

Environmental study says phenomenon is a danger to local waters and fishermen's welfare.

New York // Nets and traps that have been lost or abandoned off the Arabian peninsula can continue to catch fish for years, threatening to deplete marine stocks, UN environment chiefs warn in a new report.

About 640,000 tons of discarded fishing gear are added to the world's oceans every year, much of it continuing to pointlessly catch fish or creatures such as turtles, seabirds or whales for years or even decades, the report says. Piero Mannini, a UN aquaculture head, said "ghost fishing" threatened the yields of fishermen of the Gulf and the East Coast. It will be debated at a summit in Dubai this week.

"The phenomenon is very well-known to fishermen of the Arabian peninsula because they are the first to suffer the losses," said Mr Mannini, who also is a Cairo-based fisheries officer for the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO). "Not only do they lose their gear, but they can also lose their catch." The 139-page study, co-written by the FAO and UN Environment Programme (Unep), warns of a mounting threat because of the global growth in fishing and the use of equipment made from increasingly durable materials.

Among the main culprits are bottom-sea gill nets, which are anchored to the floors of the Arabian Gulf, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden to snare kingfish and tuna in an undersea wall of netting that can stretch several thousand metres. Gill nets can snap in storms, snag on coral reefs or become entangled in other fishing gear. When that happens, they can continue to trap marine life "for months, and sometimes years, indiscriminately killing fish and other animals", Unep warned in a statement.

As many as 20 per cent of traps for lobsters and other creatures are lost in these seas each year. The study recommended measures such as cash incentives for fishing fleets to bring broken nets to port, better mapping of underwater hazards to avoid losses or new designs such as nets that dissolve if left in the water too long. "The amount of fishing gear remaining in the marine environment will continue to accumulate, and the impacts on marine ecosystems will continue to get worse if the international community doesn't take effective steps to deal with the problem of marine debris as a whole," warned Ichiro Nomura, a senior FAO official for fisheries and aquaculture.

Gulf fisheries experts will meet in Dubai from Tuesday to Thursday to discuss ghost fishing and the region's myriad other marine threats, including red tide and overfishing. Unep executive director Achim Steiner said acidification linked to greenhouse gases and rising deoxygenated "dead zones" caused by runoff and land-based pollution were other key issues. "Abandoned and lost fishing is part of this suite of challenges that must be urgently addressed collectively if the productivity of our oceans and seas is to be maintained for this and future generations," Mr Steiner said.

Dr Thabit Zahran al Abdessalaam, director of marine biodiversity management at the Environment Agency ? Abu Dhabi, said the UAE banned drift nets in 1999. Abu Dhabi has also banned encircling nets and bottom-sea gill nets. However, studies carried out by the EAD in 2007 showed that abandoned nets and use of banned nets continued to be an issue and were a major reason for the death of dugongs. Dr Ibrahim al Jamali, director of the Marine Resource Research Centre in Umm al Qaiwain, said drift nets were used seasonally in the rest of the country for fish such as sardines or Spanish mackerel. He said there were instances when, faced with an unusually large catch, fishermen would cut their nets and leave the trapped fish and gear to drift in the ocean.

The Emirates Diving Association said 135 discarded fishing lines and 48 nets had been retrieved during a volunteer clean-up last year. The most popular fishing tool in the country is the fish trap, also known as the gargoor. Although the dome-shaped cages once were made of date palm stems, now most are made of metal. EAD studies in 2001 and 2002 showed fishermen were losing as many as 60 per cent of all gargoor, killing fish unnecessarily. In 2003, the agency forced a change in design to include an escape panel for trapped fish. The device opens after the trap has been submerged for two weeks. Normally, fishermen collect the traps after no more than four days.

However, gargoor used in other emirates do not feature escape panels. The "forgotten" traps are a common sight at many of the East Coast's coral reefs. jreinl@thenational.ae * With additional reporting by Vesela Todorova