One bird highlights the big impact of ghost gear

January 31 2018

The Rozalia Project led high school students on a beach cleanup around Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals off the coasts of Maine and New Hampshire, to collect the plastic marine debris that has become ubiquitous to shorelines around the globe.

For those who work in ocean science, an opportunity to get a out on the water is an opportunity not to be missed.

Last year, our Oceans and Wildlife Campaign Manager, Elizabeth Hogan, was invited to join the team at the Rozalia Project onboard their research vessel for a week of research on marine debris, and she immediately said yes.

This expedition was part of our Sea Change campaign to protect marine life from lost or abandoned fishing (ghost) gear.

"Spending a week onboard with eight sailors, researchers, educators, and photographers was an incredible gift, and I’m glad to say that every minute was put to good use. Some days we pulled out Hector, the underwater robot (otherwise known as a Remote Operated Vehicle, ROV) who gave us a camera below the surface, as well as the ability to pick up what we found down there and dispose of it properly," Elizabeth said.

"Other days, we had the opportunity to educate youth groups, teaching kids about marine debris and the dangers and implications of plastic in our oceans, along with the consequences on marine life and the human food chain."

Freeing a tangled gull

After witnessing first-hand the incredible harm that ghost gear causes marine wildlife, Elizabeth was ecstatic to have a chance to address this issue.

The Rozalia Project led high school students on a beach cleanup around Star Island, in the Isles of Shoals off the coasts of Maine & New Hampshire, to collect the plastic marine debris that has become ubiquitous to shorelines around the globe.

They spotted a brown herring gull, frantically flapping its wings as it hovered and struggled above a large outcropping of rocks. From a distance, the team found it strange that the bird was moving so much while remaining in the same small amount of space.

"After moving closer to see what was causing this behavior, I was able to see it – clear monofilament fishing line, with only a bobber (tiny float on fishing line) making the line visible in any way, extending from the bird’s beak to a space between two rocks. The bird had clearly swallowed a fish hook, and some fishing line was protruding from his beak with a second bobber wedged tightly between the two rocks."

The bird was trapped, unable to move more than the length that this painful "leash" in its jaw allowed.

In August 2017, World Animal Protection joined the Rozalia Project for a beach cleanup on the Isle of Shoals, Maine, USA. While there, they encountered a gull bird trapped in ghost gear. Photo courtesy of Eric Miller

Fortunately, Arthur Eves, the island naturalist, was on hand and both he and Elizabeth were equipped with thick gloves and a knife.

After climbing seaweed-coated rocks, the two eventually reached the bird.

"He was not happy to see us, and I felt terrible about the panic that our presence caused for the bird, completely unable to engage in his natural instinct to fly away at our approach."

Luckily, this interaction would be over quickly.

With his thick orange gloves giving him cover from the bird's sharp beak, Arthur was able to grip it tightly while Elizabeth inspected the line.

Once the line was severed, the bird was free again.

With some very indignant ruffling of feathers, it immediately hopped to a new set of rocks and threw Arthur and Elizabeth a few looks before testing out its wings.

Having been trapped for an unknown number of hours, it didn’t seem to trust its ability to fly without experiencing pain from the tension of the fishing line.

But, it soon figured out that it was no longer caught and soared above the island.

The staggering impact of ghost gear

The amount of line that trapped this gull was incredibly minuscule; there was approximately 20 inches of a single monofilament line, barely big enough to be visible.

Yet this small piece of line would have eventually led to the death of this animal if it hadn’t received help.

When we think about the approximatley 800,000 tons of fishing gear that is lost or discarded every year, and the millions of animals that become entangled each year, freeing a single bird may seem like a small victory.

But this bird became one less animal lost due to ghost gear.

Click here to learn more about what we're doing to combat ghost gear through our Sea Change campaign.

The amount of line that trapped this gull was incredibly minuscule, yet this small piece of line would have eventually led to the death of this animal if it hadn’t received help.

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