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Recent figures from the WWF indicate that between 500 000 and one million tons of ghost fishing equipment are abandoned in the ocean each year. Ghost nets are lost, abandoned or discarded fishing gear left by fishermen. The proliferation of discarded ghost nets is a major issue for marine life and sea habitats, as well as the commercial fishing industry and marine vessels themselves. It is estimated that ghost nets make up 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (now 1.6 million square km in size, three times that of France) and up to 10% of all marine litter.  

Ghost nets are made from a range of synthetic fibers, nylon and other plastic compounds and are able to travel vast distances once lost or abandoned. The most common type of ghost net is called a gillnet (also referred to as a driftnet) which, if exceeding 2.5km in length, have been banned within international waters by the UN since 1992. Gillnets are used on top of the water’s surface as well as on the seabed, acting like a wall in which fish and other marine life become quickly entangled. There are also pots and other box-like traps. Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) are typically bamboo netting with buoys attached, and are used beneath a fishing boat to trap extra catch. Purse seine netting, named for its purse-like structure, works to envelop schools of fish, pulled to the surface at the right moment. Trawling involves large volumes of netting being pulled along the back of a heavy boat. Due to the nature of this practice, netting can become easily caught at the bottom of the ocean. Fish cages, wiring and hooks are also classified as ghost fishing equipment. 

Ghost nets are a threat to a multitude of ocean species, big and small: Ghost nets don’t only catch fish; they also entangle sea turtles, dolphins, porpoises, birds, sharks and seals. These animals swim into nets, often unable to detect them, and either sustain injuries or are drowned or suffocated. In 2018, it was reported that up to 650 000 marine animals are killed by ghost nets every year. If the animal is lucky enough to escape, it may still die from its injuries. Often these tragic circumstances cause a long, painful death. If the ghost net is caught on the seabed, smaller ocean creatures begin feeding on the dead catch in the nets, reducing its weight and allowing the netting to float up to the surface again. This in turn creates a destructive cycle. 

Figures indicate that over 40 000 tons of gillnets are abandoned every year in South Korean waters (where the netting is particularly popular) each year. In the North-East Atlantic, 25 000 ghost nets are discarded each year – totalling up to 1 250km in length. Between 2014 and 2015, volunteers retrieved marked ghost nets that travelled 4 700km from Maine, USA to the Cornish coast in England, totalling 51 tonnes of netting. 7 000km worth of gillnets are lost in the Atlantic Ocean annually, while in the United Arab Emirates, 260 000 traps are lost yearly and 250 000 in the Gulf of Mexico. A 12-month study in Thailand waters showed that 96% of tangled animals were non-targets for fishermen. Finally, between 2004 and 2015, 13 000 ghost nets were removed from the northern coast of Australia. 

It takes approximately 600-800 years on average for ghost fishing nets to naturally decompose. 

Seals and sea lions are particularly vulnerable, according to the WWF report, finding that 1 500 Australian sea lions die annually due to entanglement; 53% of these entanglements between 1997 and 2002 involved pups. In 2018, more than 300 300 dead olive ridley sea turtles were spotted off the coast of Mexico. It was determined that they died from hooks and nets. Further, more than 80% of Indian Ocean dolphins have been killed from gillnets, classified as ‘by-catch’ while fishermen were fishing for tuna. Also, the Vaquita (the most critically endangered ocean species) is facing imminent extinction due to illegal fishing in the Sea of Cortez, the one place where vaquitas are found. However, they are collateral in the search for the Totoaba fish, highly desired for its medicinal properties. As of March 2020, there are only ten remaining Vaquita in the ocean. 

In October last year, a pregnant minke whale was found beached on the coast of Scotland with ghost netting knotted in its mouth. Representatives from Scottish Marine Animal Stranding Scheme said, “It looked like it had become recently entangled in a section of discarded or lost fishing net – this had become jammed in the baleen and then dragged behind the animal. This would have hugely impaired the animal from feeding or swimming normally, and likely led to an exhausting last few hours of life. Based on the flank bruising and lungs, it appears this creature live stranded and drowned in the surfline.” 

Abandoned ghost nets are also doing considerable damage to marine habitats. This is because the netting has a smothering effect on reefs and consequently attracts invasive species, disease and parasites to coral reefs, causing long-term damage to the ecosystem. Damage to habitats can also occur when trawling and lobster pots (netted cages designed to capture a range of crustaceans) destroy fragile coral during strong currents and storms. 

The benthos– ocean bottom regions- are also susceptible to the impacts from discarded fishing gear and ghost fishing. Discarded fishing gear, especially trap gear, sinks to the bottom where it can smother organisms that live on top of and just below the sediments, like seagrasses, crabs, and worms. These harmful practices are counterproductive to fishermen, who will ultimately suffer the consequences of destroying marine ecosystems as their catches will be affected. It is estimated that 53% of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, while a further 32% are considered to be overexploited or recovering from overexploitation. Ghost fishing nets are left in the sea for a variety of reasons. Gear may be abandoned when fishermen cannot retrieve the net due to it snagging on rocks and coral on the seabed. Some fishing vessels cannot afford to retrieve stuck gear. Fishing nets are considered lost when marker buoys become detached or if heavy tides remove netting from its original location of deployment. Retrieval becomes especially difficult if the vessel does not use GPS technology. Sometimes ghost nets are abandoned deliberately due to poor on-shore facilitation for disposal as well as high disposal costs. Additionally, if an illegal fishing vessel is in danger of being caught, nets may be cut off or thrown overboard.

There are a great number of solutions and technological measures that have been implemented to help retrieve ghost nets – if used more broadly with government support, the clean-up process could be more efficient and widespread. Producing nets with biodegradable components could shorten the time that abandoned gear is left intact in the ocean. Project NetTag is working on a special underwater acoustic transponder for fishermen to secure to their gear. About the size of a matchbox, these transponders have batteries similar to smartphones, but use circuitry which requires very low power, which means they can operate for many months attached to a net. Another European project called MarGnet has been researching the effectiveness of a sonar device which is attached to the seabed to decipher pollution hot-spots through generating an 360 degree underwater map which is then investigated by diving teams. Underwater drones such as Deep Trekker’s Remote Operated Vehicles (ROVs) are able to operate in extreme weather conditions and are a useful tool in locating ghost nets. In 2015, a WWF-led search along the Baltic Sea resulted in 268 tons of ghost fishing gear being removed from the ocean. There are plenty of other examples of grassroot clean-up of missions

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What Can Be Done?

Governments across the world should do more to remove ghost nets and clamp down on illegal fishing. World Animal Protection has formed a Global Ghost Gear Initiative that calls for an alliance of governments and organisations to share data, resources and education on the issue as well as coordinate search efforts. The United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) underpin the rules and legalities of human activity at sea, but WWF says that more action must be taken to apply these regulations. Article 194 of the convention provides for state regulation of fishing gear by providing the licensing of fishing equipment used in waters under national jurisdiction. However, implementation and enforcement should be strengthened at the global, regional and national levels, including through the adoption of adequate implementing legislation. In 2009, the European Community Council Regulation enforced a law stating that fishermen are obligated to retrieve and report lost netting. However, Greek fisherman Vannis Athinaios has witnessed this law being ignored: “The law is not enforced. Most of us have equipment like GPS and plotters. Big boats have advanced equipment and crews of divers to track lost gear down, but they don’t do it because they can make €6,000, the cost say, of a lost net on any given day.”  In 2008, The FAO Committee on Fisheries set guidelines for marking fishing gear, however they are voluntary. Elizabeth Hogan of Oceans and Wildlife with World Animal Protection says that governments should take the matter more seriously, “This would not only result in loss prevention by responsible fisheries, it would also help stop illegal fishing (IUU), which accounts for intentionally discarded gear (typically abandoned at sea to avoid detection). IUU fishing costs the global economy US$20 billion annually. Marked gear would help authorities track illegal fishing activity and bring criminals to justice.”

Overall, more awareness and education needs to be provided to better communicate the pervasiveness, danger and durability of ghost fishing equipment within our oceans. With ghost nets dubbed the ‘silent killers’ of the sea, the problem can only be addressed if governments come together on a world-wide level and work collectively to reduce unnecessary marine-life deaths. As of now, 16 governments have joined forces to achieve the goals of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative. If more governments make a commitment to carefully enforce strict rules and regulations to rid the oceans of this marine litter, this would be a great step in helping to establish much healthier oceans and safer marine life. 

A mysterious pollution outbreak in Kamchatka, Russia, has left many marine species, including seals, octopuses and sea urchins, washing up on Avacha Bay since September. Scientists have reported that as much as 95% of marine species along the seabed have been killed in what is being treated as a major marine pollution incident.

Ordinarily, the bay is a pristine 1 250-kilometre-long volcanic peninsula well-known for its exceptional landscapes with 160 large symmetrical volcanoes and diversity of wildlife.

The pollution incident came to light in early September after local surfers and swimmers reported stinging eyes and the water changing colour to a greyish-yellow with a thick milky foam on the surface. Officials later reported that people partaking in activities in the sea have sustained mild burns to their corneas.

This prompted Greenpeace to call the incident an “ecological disaster” and backlash from the public led Russia’s Investigative Committee to launch an investigation into the area for the “circulation of environmentally hazardous substances and waste.” Tests showed levels of oil products and phenol that were 3.6 and 2.5 times higher than usual, after Kamchatka’s Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology’s initial insistence that there was no such issue, saying that “nothing abnormal” had been recorded. 

No Answers

It is still unclear what caused the contamination; however, authorities have confirmed that all possible sources are being investigated. Officials are scrambling to find the origin after President Vladimir Putin reacted angrily to the late reporting of an oil leak in Arctic Siberia that poured thousands of tons of diesel into land and waterways in June. In turn, the ecology minister, Dmitry Kobylkin, stated that Putin had ordered him to establish the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination.

The Emergencies Ministry said it was using boats and drones to monitor the coastline but no pollution was visible. The regional governor, Vladimir Solodov, said it was a problem that the region had no unified system of environmental monitoring.

Local media outlets have speculated about a possible oil tanker leak or military drill gone wrong, which the Defence Ministry has denied. More alarming is that some experts have suggested that highly toxic rocket fuel such as heptyl, samin or mélange could have leaked into the sea. The first test site, Radygino, is about ten km from the sea and was used for drills in August.

Vladimir Burkanov, a biologist specialising in seals, suggested that old stores of rocket fuel kept in Radygino could have rusted and the fuel leaked into streams.

Moreover, the site of Kozelsky, approximately 15km from  the sea, has been used to bury toxic chemicals and pesticides, according to the regional governor’s website. Greenpeace says that stores of over 100 tonnes of toxic substances, including pesticides, had been breached.

While authorities in Russia are opening criminal cases into the Kamchatka crisis by examining man-made pollution, they have refused to rule out the possibility that the pollution could have been caused by a natural phenomena, such as seismic activity or microalgae.

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kamchatka russia pollution
Source: BBC News

Potential Threat to World Heritage Sites

While specialists continue to collect samples, scientists say. that the contaminated area is much larger than what they have examined and that the remaining marine life is under threat due to lack of food; some large fish, shrimps and crabs have survived, “but in very small quantities.” However, these too may die as their food supply has been destroyed.

After Greenpeace recently surveyed the territory, the water pollution has been identified in parts of Kamchatka’s World Heritage Site. This includes Vilyuchinskaya Bay that is home to 50% of the world’s Stellar Sea Eagle population.

Traces of the contaminants were also found in the basin and mouth of the Nalychev River, which flows through the Nalychevo Nature Park and is home to a wide variety of species, including the world’s greatest known diversity of salmonid fish, as well as brown bears and sea otters.  “The death of fish and seabed creatures is dangerous for both sea birds and mammals,” WWF says, adding that sea otters that eat urchins and clams could be among the most affected animals.

It is still unclear how much the pollutants will negatively affect the peninsula’s natural ecosystem.

Environmental Pressures

Despite Putin ordering for an immediate investigation into the cause of the Kamchatka water contamination, possibly permafrost thaw in Siberia, Russia’s environmental action is driven with no clear climate policy. As domestic policies continue to focus on its heavily subsidised oil and gas industry, with a strong emphasis on expanding natural gas exports, the Russian Ministry of Energy has explicitly identified the promotion of renewable energy to be a direct threat to planned fossil fuel expansion. Russia accounts for 4.5% of global emissions, behind China, USA and India.

Furthermore, Russia’s industries are not being encouraged to reduce emissions and deal with pollution, drawing a general consensus that there continues to be a lack of action across the board on environmental policy; hence, Russia’s environmental future remains somewhat bleak. 

However, the 2017 Russian Year of Ecology, announced by President Vladimir Putin, was a step towards changing public and policy attitudes towards pollution and other environmental problems in Russia, a welcome development. Further, there are numerous local and citizen-led projects across the country, including Greenpeace Russia, that are assisting authorities in their investigative efforts. 

Perhaps in this way, the government of Russia, supranational bodies, international partners and heavy industries can be influenced to enact much-needed environmental policies and procedures to reduce and tackle the effects of pollution, with this crisis in Kamchatka potentially acting as a turning point for the government and the public to take climate action.

Featured image by: Flickr

Startup company Colorifix has created a sustainable dyeing process that offers a solution to current harmful industrial dyeing practices used by the fashion industry. The scientists behind the technology believe that this will help generate a greener, more sustainable society and improve fashion’s water pollution problem.

In 2013, a team of Cambridge University scientists visited Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley to explore the region’s waters and trial run a device that measures water pollution. 

After speaking to local people, who are reliant on the contaminated streams and rivers for their water supply, and conducting several analyses, the scientists discovered the culprit behind the polluted water: waste from textile factories.

“We were shocked,” said Orr Yarkoni, one of the researchers of the investigation. Being one of the most water-abundant countries in the world, Nepal also has extensive water pollution, which makes its way into the clean water supply. In fact, more than 85% of the population no longer has access to safe drinking water. 


In 2016, Yarkoni and two Cambridge University colleagues, Jim Ajioka and David Nugent, co-found Colorifix, developing a new method of dyeing clothes without the associated negative environmental effects, eliminating the need for toxic chemicals.

Yarkoni explained that the technology also uses close to 90% less water and nearly 40% less energy than the conventional dyeing process. 

The breakthrough finding offers a promising solution to the textile industry’s vast use of toxic dyes and pollutants that are harming the planet and its most vulnerable inhabitants. 

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Quinine and Purple 

In 1856, William Henry Perkin discovered the first synthetic dye. While trying to produce quinine, a substance used to treat malaria, Perkin created a vivid purple substance which easily transferred onto cloth. This discovery revolutionised fashion, however it coincided with an array of environmental problems that persist today.

The dyeing industry uses more than 8 000 chemicals to colour garments- including sulfur, arsenic and formaldehyde- all of which are detrimental to wildlife and human health.

Due to weak regulation enforcement in less developed countries across Asia, where most of the world’s clothes are produced, many textile manufacturers discard toxic substances directly into local waterways. 

The dyeing process utilises enough water to fill 2 million Olympic-sized swimming pools annually, making the dyeing industry responsible for close to 20% of industrial water pollution.

Microorganisms as a Solution

The device Yarkoni and his research team developed to test water pollution in Nepal used genetically modified bacteria that change colour when exposed to toxic chemicals. Yarkoni and his business partners decided to harness the bacteria’s colour-changing reaction to develop their dyeing innovation: Colorifix.

Based in Norwich, England, Colorifix produces dyes inspired by ‘nature’s blueprints’. The company is in a laboratory, where the bacteria reproduce and replicate the DNA sequence that codes for colour in an organism- rather than deriving colour dyes from plants or animals, like traditional dyeing methods do.

Using genetic code from plants, dragonflies and gorillas, for example, from scientific studies, the process leaves animals unharmed and the pigments sustainable: “we don’t like bothering animals,” Yarkoni explained. 

Colorifix inserts the genetic information that directs the colour-making process into a bacterial cell, which copies itself every 25 minutes This cell is placed in a fermenting machine, where cells are able to rapidly multiply, each one making more pigment. The bacteria are nourished with sugar molasses and nitrogen by-products of the agricultural industry.  

A Booming Innovation 

A German-Israeli firm, Algalife, is another company using biotechnology to create sustainable dyes with the help of algae. 

Pili, a French startup, uses a similar fermentation process to Colorifix to generate colour. Jeremie Blache, CEO of Pili, says the process- which is still at the trial stage- is expected to use 80% less water and produce 90% less carbon emissions than conventional dye-making methods.

Yarkoni however claims that Colorifix is the only biotechnology startup that aims to transform both dye production and application- which is key to integrating the new method into society, especially the fashion industry. 

Other dye innovations rely on water and chemicals to isolate pigments from bacteria, and make and apply the dye, but Colorifix places the bacteria directly onto the fabric to colour it. Once the fabric is heated, the microorganisms’ membranes burst and release the colour, which chemically binds to the fiber. The remnants of bacteria cells are then washed off, leaving a clean and coloured garment. 

Reduced Carbon Footprint 

Another benefit of the Colorifix technology is lower transport pollution, which is an added sector fuelling the large carbon footprint of the fashion industry.

Instead of transporting copious quantities of dye, Colorifix is able to send just five grams of colour-packed bacteria to a dyehouse. Yarkoni explains the microorganism will multiply and after 10 days, the factory will have the resources to produce approximately 50 tonnes of dye solution a day. 

This ‘grow your own’ approach has limitations: dyehouses will need to adapt by purchasing fermenting equipment and investing in training from Colorifix to correctly integrate the process.

Blache from Pili argues that ready-to-use pigments are far more likely to succeed due to their simple integration. 

Georgia Parker, Innovation Manager at startup accelerator Fashion for Good, claims that transporting live microbes safely is another obstacle the industry faces. “There is specific legislation around the transportation of living organisms across different geographies,” Parker said. “As a dyehouse, you would need to get government signoff to import these organisms.”

Despite this, Parker believes that bacteria-based dyes will become cost effective in the long-term and will be widely implemented in the industry “in the next couple years.”

A Promising Future Beyond Greenwashing 

Already in high demand, Yarkoni says Colorifix has more customers in the fashion industry than it can currently handle, and has garnered support from brands including H&M, which invested in the company in 2018 and continues to pilot the technology within its supply chain. 

H&M is one of the many fast fashion brands attempting to adopt ambitious goals to reduce their environmental and chemical footprint. 

Francois Souchet, who leads the Ellen Macarthur Foundation’s Make Fashion Circular initiative, explained that “increased scrutiny from policymakers” and “expectations from the consumer for better solutions” are pushing the fashion industry to become more sustainable.

Though still in the beginning stages of production, Colorifix launched its first industrial trial at a dyehouse in Portugal in July. Yarkoni says, “I truly believe that in the future, a very large proportion of our industry- if not all of it- will be based on these biological principles.”

Featured image by: Adityamadhav83

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