Eaglet predicament shines light on bigger issue of ghost fishing

Debra Probert

The Vancouver Sun Online

May 22, 2011


The dramatic rescue of Donald the eaglet on Vancouver Island has shed light on a problem that most people don’t think much about – the issue of “ghost fishing”.

Donald, a young eaglet, had a leg tangled in fishing line.  It’s speculated that the fishing line arrived in his nest via a salmon brought up to the nest as food by the parents. Over time, and as millions of people watched via ‘Eagle Cam’, Donald’s leg became increasingly tangled. Public pressure grew for an intervention to free him from this potentially deadly situation.

It so happened that as this drama unfolded, I had in my hands a 2010 document called “Worse things happen at sea: the welfare of wild-caught fish” by Alison Mood (www.fishcount.org.uk). This report serves to draw attention to the welfare of fish in commercial fishing and offer practical solutions . One serious problem it refers to is that of ghost fishing – a reference to the uncalculated number of fish, marine turtles, birds and mammals that become tangled in nets and other  fishing paraphernalia that have been lost at sea, but continue to wreak havoc on wildlife.

Commercial fishing is not pretty, and there are many methods used to catch the most fish with the least amount of time and effort. For instance, the gill net is a wall of netting that’s invisible to fish as it hangs in the sea. It’s designed so that as fish of a certain size swim into the net, their heads can fit through the holes, but their bodies cannot. When they reverse to escape, their gills become entangled – the more they struggle, the more trapped they become.  They can remain this way for hours or even days before they are hauled aboard ship and killed. Also, marine turtles, birds and mammals can get tangled in the nets and drown. When a gill-net sinks to the bottom and is lost, it can go on trapping fish for months or even years.

Of course, gill nets are not the only gear that can be lost at sea. Other fishing methods like trawling (dragging a bag-shaped net through the water, chasing fish and then gathering them up when they’re exhausted) and purse seining (a long wall of netting that is drawn into a circle, enclosing a school of fish) can result in loss of netting, which becomes a death trap for untold numbers of fish. Pole and line fishing, either for commercial or sport purposes, can leave behind nearly indestructible fishing line, which when swallowed by fish can result in serious injury or death.  And as we’ve seen with Donald, the destruction of wildlife often continues on land.

Even if your compassion stops at sea level, the harm to wildlife like Donald is not the only thing to be concerned about.  Globally, commercial overfishing is destroying fish stocks faster than they can be replenished. And fish farming is not the answer – these fish are fed wild fish that are turned into fish meal.  According to Alison Mood’s report, it takes roughly 14 kg. and, depending on their size, 14 to 1400 wild-caught fish to feed one 4 kg. farmed salmon. This ‘fishing down the food chain’ not only creates evolutionary pressure that decreases the size of fish, but imperils people in developing countries who now see their traditional food source becoming an export commodity that is financially out of their reach.

There are ways to stop the carnage.  Nets, lines, and other fishing equipment that are subject to being lost can be made of biodegradable material. Traps used for fishing can be fitted with time release panels. But this will only happen when fishers and the companies who buy from them are made accountable by consumers.

Let’s hope Donald the eaglet can be the impetus for increased awareness about the not so obvious effects of society’s voracious appetite for fish.