Ghost Fishing, the Phantom Menace of the Sea

With Halloween approaching, you are probably thinking of candy and costumes, debating which scary creature you’ll dress up as this year. A vampire? A zombie? The oldie-but-goodie witch?

But let me tell you, the scariest of them all is the ghost. Especially one that fishes. And no one knows where or how much ghost fishing occurs.

What is ‘ghost fishing’? No, they are not lost souls who come back from the afterlife to take the lives of the fish they let escape, but they may as well be. Ghost fishing refers to fishing gear like nets, lines, and traps left behind in the ocean that continue to ensnare sea life, injuring and killing thousands of animals.

Each year, a staggering 640,000 tons of gear are lost and forgotten in our oceans*, and go on to become death traps for marine life spanning from lobsters to whales, to seals to turtles to birds.

The negative impact of ghost fishing extends far more than the depletion of fish populations, cetaceans, and other sea life. For one thing, these derelict nets and traps do not disintegrate for many years, and their remains often negatively impact sensitive ecosystems. When they do finally break down, the chemicals and plastic used in the manufacturing process seep into the ocean. Fish and seabirds ingest these by-products, which move up the food chain, ultimately finding their way into us.

So what’s being done about ghost fishing? Several environmental groups have initiated campaigns to scavenge and remove some of this harmful lost gear. One such group ingeniously generates yarn from this waste and recycle the gear into carpets, textiles, and even swimwear.

Most importantly, all of these groups are raising awareness, reminding the public that the ocean is not a giant garbage can. Just because these ghost fishing gear are out of sight does not mean they should be out of mind. In order to diminish the damage, you could help by participating in a local shoreline cleanup, or encouraging your fishing acquaintances to adopt the use of biodegradable twines.

Ghost fishing fully illustrates how human impact continues to be a phantom menace to our neighbours living in and near the sea, and serves as a good wake-up call to the damage we are doing to our oceans and ourselves. So let’s work together to keep our environment clean and healthy, because the scariest notion this Halloween, and all year round, is how quickly we’re destroying our planet.

*Cited in report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UN Environment Programme (UNEP), 2009. For full report:

For more information, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has produced a detailed report of a marine debris workshop they hosted in Hawaii that provides extensive information on ghost fishing gear: