HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Fla. – A group of Fort Lauderdale students in the St. Thomas Aquinas High School Marine Science Club were out on their monthly cleanup when they found something, unlike anything they had seen before.
It was a stinky master class on the devastating effects of ocean plastic pollution.
“We smelled it first,” said student Lilli Ramdazzo. “We were like, ‘What is that smell?’”
There was a 300-pound discarded fishing net. It had washed up on the shores of Hollywood Beach, and it was full of dead fish.
“We were like, ‘Wow! this is all dead fish!’ This is a big problem,” said student Dominic Alonso.
Teacher Aimee Lowe couldn’t believe her eyes.
“To actually see it! I have never seen that in my 24 years of cleaning up the beach,” Lowe said. “Just this, the scale of it, was what was most shocking.”
The textbook definition of a “Ghost Net” had been recklessly discarded. Abandoned fishing gear has been devastating our planet’s ocean.
David Kerstetter, a professor of marine science at Nova Southeastern University, specializes in fisheries gear technology.
“Ghost Gear is any kind of fishing gear that’s been lost from the fisherman,” Kerstetter said. “It can be from storms, it can be intentionally discarded illegally, but its gear that’s still fishing, still catching fish, and all the other things scavenging on them.”
Kerstetter said Ghost Gear like abandoned nets, fishing lines, ropes, or even Fish Aggregating Devices are having catastrophic consequences worldwide.
“It’s not out of sight out of mind. That gear is not degrading, it’s just washing away, and they will entangle things like sea turtles, or even marine birds, with coastal driftnets entangling dolphins,” Kerstetter said.
Witness video recorded in April shows scuba divers working feverishly to free two whale sharks ensnared in Ghost Gear off the coast of Indonesia. The whale sharks survived, but each year millions of marine species die because of Ghost Gear.
It’s so pervasive that every year enough commercial fishing gear is left in the ocean to stretch to the moon and back, according to the most comprehensive study ever done on lost fishing equipment by the CSIRO science agency.
“It’s a worldwide issue,” said Kerstetter. “In the U.S., we have generally pretty good enforcement. That’s not nearly the case in much of the rest of the world.”
It’s happening from the beaches of Bali to Hawaii, to South Florida, where last year a sperm whale beached itself off the coast of Key West with its stomach filled with discarded fishing gear.
These students saw its deadly aftermath right in their own backyard.
“It was sad to just realize how long that probably must have been out there,” Toni Levisman said.
For Levisman, a St. Thomas Aquinas student, it was an unforgettable lesson.
“You hear about these things you know just the miles and miles of Ghosts Nets in the ocean, but you never really have to come face to face with it and see it, so seeing that is just, it really brings you to that experience that reminds you why you’re out here picking up all that trash,” Levisman said.
The Ghost Net they found was so massive and heavy that the students had to call for backup. City of Hollywood Public Works personnel responded to help pick up the gigantic death trap.
“Every single time we would pick it up, more would fall out,” said Jillian Jones, another St. Thomas Aquinas student.
Modern fishing gear is made from nylon, which is a plastic that will take 500 years to biodegrade.
“They could be going around for even centuries, they believe, made of nylon and not breaking down and entangling all kinds of organisms,” said Lowe.
The students had a message, not just for the commercial fishing industry, but also to everyone: Your everyday choices matter and it’s having a lasting footprint on the planet’s future.
“There is an effect to what you’re doing,” Alonso said. “You have to bring this to a stop for us. We’re going to trash the whole world and what are we going to do? Where are we going to live? There’s not going to be anywhere.”
An estimated 171 trillion pieces of plastic are in our ocean right now, and much of it comes from recklessly discarded fishing gear.
South Florida residents can help by knowing where seafood is sourced, and by making sure not to support any industry with irresponsible and destructive fishing practices. There’s an app for that, and more information on it can be found by clicking here.