By the time Martin Stelfox and David Balson found Elsa, a juvenile Olive Ridley sea turtle, she was nearly dead. The rare turtle was suffering from dehydration, starvation, and severe injuries that led to her losing both of her front flippers—all because she had gotten herself tangled in a "ghost net," a fishing net that had been discarded, abandoned, or lost in the ocean.
"Fishing nets are designed to entangle, suffocate, and kill marine animals, and that's precisely what they do even after they have been lost," says Stelfox, who, along with Balson, founded the Olive Ridley Project in response to the large number of Olive Ridley sea turtles being trapped in ghost nets near the Maldives, a popular surf destination in the Indian Ocean. Their team actively targets the origins of ghost nets using information gathered from a small community of activists who log where and when they find them. The nets can trap animals for weeks, subjecting them to extreme conditions and repeated attacks from scavengers until they finally die.
But the issues are more far-reaching than the suffering of any single organism. Even after a ghost net has eroded, toxins like DDT and PCB can accumulate on the small net fibers, explains Balson, which are then ingested by plankton and other small organisms. These animals are then consumed by a wide range of larger marine animals, eventually spreading the poison into the human diet. The long-term effects? Lower birth weights, slowed development, and even cancer.
To date, more than 130 nets have been removed and logged in the Maldives, but estimating the total number of nets still floating in waterways around the world is an incredibly difficult task. But the Olive Ridley Project is working with other concerned organizations in India and Sri Lanka to bridge the knowledge gap. "Ghost fishing is a global problem and occurs around the world," says Stelfox. "Consider how many coastal populations rely on fishing as a source of protein and income."
So what should you do if you find a ghost net while surfing or diving? Balson explains that the most important thing is to remove and release any entangled marine organisms as quickly and efficiently as possible—but keep in mind that the injuries sustained by the animals may not always be visible. "A marine turtle trapped at the surface in fishing nets can suffer from buoyancy problems for years," says Balson, who suggests contacting local animal-rescue groups for help. Be cautious around the net, which could harbor sharp barnacles and dangerous toxins and attract large predators like sharks.
"Remove the net from the ocean to ensure the ghost net does not destroy any more marine organisms," says Stelfox. You can also provide the Olive Ridley Project with important information about where and when you picked the net out of the water. While no recycling plans are in effect at the moment, the Olive Ridley Project is in talks with a company that would possibly up-cycle the nets into carpet tiles.
For more information, visit oliveridleyproject.com.
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