Seal in ghost fishing gear, Cornwall

New research highlights the impact of ghost fishing gear on coastline of Cornwall, UK



Our new study is the first ever assessment of how ghost fishing gear is affecting the coastline of Cornwall in the United Kingdom and posing a threat to marine life.

A key finding of the research is that when interaction and entanglement risks were combined, 26% of all ghost gear items recorded posed a serious threat to marine animals.

Abandoned and lost fishing gear, known as ghost gear, encompasses lines, nets, pots and ropes which are a huge threat to marine animals and coastal wildlife. Entanglement in ghost fishing gear causes huge suffering to animals and in many cases leads to a painful death. Ghost gear is known to travel long distances along ocean currents, with lost gear from Maine and Newfoundland in North America have been found on beaches in the UK.

Entangled Harbor Seal

A seal from the Untied States that had been found entangled in ghost gear

A total of 4,226 new ghost gear items were recorded by volunteers on land and by World Animal Protection funded boat-based surveys during the 12-month study period, amounting to 49,917 liters or 51 tons from 147 different locations.

30 tons can equate to the size of a 45-foot sperm whale. The researchers were able to remove 14 tons of ghost gear during their research, reducing the immediate risk to marine animals in the area, particularly to seals (risk dropped from 47% to 24%).

The work was undertaken by Cornwall Seal Group Research Trust (CSGRT) to support our Sea Change campaign and explored the severity of the ghost gear problem in Cornwall by looking at:

  • The types and amount (volume and number of items) of ghost gear present along the coastline of Cornwall
  • The spatial extent of, and seasonal changes in, ghost gear along the coast
  • An assessment of the interaction and entanglement risks posed to marine animals.

We hope that this research in Cornwall will inspire further study around the world to build a more accurate global picture of the issue. 

“While this research was being conducted, we saw lobster pot tags traveling 3,000 miles from Maine to Scotland and pieces of gear hitching a ride on the Gulf Stream from Canada to Cornwall but the lack of research meant finding the right solutions was a real challenge," said Christina Dixon, our UK Campaigns Manager.

"Ghost gear is a transboundary problem, and it’s essential that efforts to address it are undertaken collaboratively across countries. We hope this study can be used as a model for other researchers to get a better idea of the impact of ghost gear in different regions.”

Risks to animals from all new ghost gear recorded

Interaction risks:

(likelihood of animals interacting with ghost gear)

40% of items identified posed an interaction risk.

At established seal sites, 82% (by items) posed an interaction risk to seals.

Monofilament line, all types of net, and pots posed the greatest risk to marine animals.

Entanglement risks:

(likelihood of animals becoming entangled in ghost gear)

58% of items identified posed entanglement risks

At established seal sites, entanglement risks decreased to 54% (possibly because many items at seal sites were buoys and floats, posing a small entanglement risk specifically to seals). 

All types of net, line, rope and pots posed the greatest risk to marine animals.

Ghost gear directly affected 52 individual creatures from at least 12 different species which were recorded as entangled.

Data was collected between November 2014 and October 2015, along Cornwall’s entire coastline.

Boat-based surveys:

For each boat survey, approximately 3000 photographs were taken and each item of ghost gear seen either in the field or from photos was recorded.  Data included the number of ghost gear items, the type of ghost gear (for example buoys, floats, line, monofilament net, pots, rope, rubber or other), the length and/or volume of the material, whether the item had been previously reported and if it was removed.

A total of 1398 ‘new’ ghost gear items were recorded. This amounted to 19560 liters or 20 tons from 46 locations across the Cornwall coastline. On average this amounted to 26 new items a week, over the course of the year.

Land-based surveys:

A total of 360 surveys recorded 2828 ghost gear items were recorded by volunteers amounting to 30,352 liters or 30 tons from 147 different locations. This represented 54 new items being washed in each week.

Related: Rescued from entanglement in fishing gear in March, Copper the seal was ready to live life in the wild again.

Working together to raise awareness

“CSGRT were delighted with the huge effort volunteers contributed to this project. They were motivated by our desire to collect data and knowing that their information would be shared with World Animal Protection who would publicize this issue across a wide international audience, enabling cross-boundary solutions to be found," said Sue Sayer of the Cornwall Seal Group.

"We all want to make a difference to reduce the suffering we witnessed during the project, as along with partner organizations we rescued a live entangled sea bird being buffeted by waves while trapped in a gill net, as well as rescuing entangled seals, one of which was choking itself as the net dragged under its body on a beach. We learned that even removing a small looped bit of net can save a marine creature’s life and that together we can actually make a difference.”

Get involved

Click here for more information and to sign up for updates on our Sea Change campaign.

Ghost gear is a transboundary problem, and it’s essential that efforts to address it are undertaken collaboratively across countries. We hope this study can be used as a model for other researchers to get a better idea of the impact of ghost gear in different regions.