640,000 tons of 'ghost gear' is tangling the world's oceans

640,000 tons of 'ghost gear' is tangling the world's oceans
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The first time Una was rescued in 2003, she was an orphaned Florida manatee calf struggling to survive. Like many manatees rescued in the region, she was brought to one of the state’s four manatee critical care facilities — SeaWorld Orlando. Una was hand-raised by the facility’s Animal Care Specialists until she grew strong enough to return to the wild in 2006.

This should have been the happy conclusion to a successful animal rescue. But sadly for Una, and many other marine animals like her, the growing number of environmental risks caused by boats, plastics, fishing traps and other debris lost at sea, often means they need rescuing again.

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Una was brought back to SeaWorld Orlando 10 years after her first rescue with both of her flippers tied by a fishing line. By the time her entanglement was discovered, the line was embedded deeply enough to require surgery.

 

Animals like Una face a critical threat from the debris found in the ocean. A study by World Animal Protection estimates there is nearly 640,000 tons of lost fishing equipment in our oceans — that’s three times as heavy as The Sears Tower.

The lost equipment — or ghost gear — sinks each year into marine habitats, while additional studies show plastics are accumulating in our oceans at alarming rates.

Entanglements aren’t just another risk to marine animal health — they’ve become one of the most common injuries marine conservationists treat, including here at SeaWorld. Since many of these cases often go undetected and untreated for weeks or even months, a seemingly nonthreatening injury can lead to complications and even death if untreated.

The fishing industry is fast becoming a major champion in catching these types of injuries early on. Fishermen have one big advantage to saving the environment that many of us don’t — they see the direct impact debris has on our oceans every day. They are often the eyes and ears marine conservationists need to rescue animals in need.

Increasingly, fishermen are also making sure their gear returns safely to dry land. In Florida, over 1,600 dispensaries that trash used fishing line are located across the state near boat ramps, piers, marinas and in supply stores, decreasing the likelihood it ends up back in the ocean. These initiatives follow sustained advocacy by leaders in the East Coast fishing industry to swap their gear for alternatives reducing harm to marine life and the surrounding ecosystem.

Luckily, Una’s story does end happily; the line was safely removed, and Una’s fast recovery led to her return home again just last December. Her story is not a unique one, however, and I believe businesses and individuals have the responsibility to do everything within their power to ensure animals like Una live the debris-free lives they deserve. Simple changes, like banning single-use shopping bag, can save as many as four million plastic bags from harming the environment each year.

Preventative measures complement individual and organized efforts across the nation to address and remove the harmful materials that make their way into our waterways. Community leaders and organizations like Living Lands & Waters stage regular cleanups for local fresh water ecosystems to ensure that less debris will eventually travel into open oceans and disrupt marine life.

Not only do these cleanups tackle pollution from the source to prevent further animal entanglements, but they also provide opportunities for anyone to make a difference. With the support of individual volunteers, we can keep our local habitats clean and better preserve the environments impacted by waste and debris every day.  

The advent of World Oceans Month each year is more than just an arbitrary holiday to celebrate our ocean’s wonders — it is a unique invitation to reflect on the environmental footprint we’re leaving on our planet — and the positive impact each of us can make to preserve it for generations to come.

Jon Peterson is a manager of rescue operations for SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment in Orlando, Florida. SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation Fund has previously provided support through monetary grants to Living Lands & Waters.