Most of us have heard or read about “ghost fishing,” the trapping of fish, seals, seabirds, crustaceans, sea lions, whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine life in the accumulation of old, abandoned fishing nets, lobster, shrimp and crab pots, old, discarded rope and plastic debris these garbage piles collect. The sea creatures get stuck in the pots and the netting and starve to death. They call it ghost fishing because these traps and nets still work to catch fish and other marine life even though there is no longer human control of the fishing.
Although it seems we are just starting to hear and read more about the piles of garbage in the oceans, scientists were aware of it in the 1970s. By 1985 these fields of garbage were given the name “ghost fishing gear.” That term included underwater debris as well as surface litter. In 1997 a racing boat captain, Captain Charles Moore, on his way home from a trans-Pacific race came across a huge trash pile he called the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” that is now located between Hawaii and California.
This huge pile of trash, so big, “as far as the eye could see,” described by Captain Moore, generated interest around the time most of us were becoming aware of the importance of the health of our oceans. We were being reminded of the value of healthy oceans, how we depend on them for transportation, generating wind for electricity, climate regulation, oxygen, fishermens’ livelihoods and more.
There isn’t just one massive floating pile of trash out there. Spotters looking for debris in the Indian Ocean from a plane crash in the area came upon a field of floating garbage almost as big as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Not only do commercial fishing nets contribute to the immense piles of trash, the tsunami in Japan in 2011, swept through coastal Japan and removed tons of peoples’ belongings and added them to the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. There are actually two sections of the big patch, covering the area from the west coast of the US to Japan. The western patch is located near Japan and the eastern patch is located between Hawaii and California.
How did this all get started? The nets that were once made of cotton fibers disintegrated with age and use and disappeared. The change in fibers in the 1960s to nylon and polypropylene fibers meant dealing with them forever. Fishermen have always lost nets and lobstermen have always had the wind and tide move their pots to unknown locations. Bad weather, nets snagging on something on the bottom or just aging nets in need of repair have always been a problem for fishermen but the new fabric nets don’t disintegrate – they stay around until they are removed.
When the change from cotton to nylon and polypropylene was one issue, at around the same time netmakers were dealing with other issues that complicated what had been a simple business. There was competition from other countries – China, Japan, Turkey and the Mom and Pop stores of Korea. Local governments decided nets could not be dipped in tar or plastic and the netmakers were squeezed by environmentalists and the government.
As a result of changing regulations, competition with lower prices from outside the country and the government outlawing gill nets, some of the netmakers moved on to other work. When I spoke to Elizabeth Macdonald, who made nets for many years for Island Fishnet in Sayville, she said now that she has moved to Florida that she’s been told she’s the second netmaker in all of Florida.
Elizabeth’s grandfather owned a fishing supply business, Radfords, across from the water in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn. She learned how to make small nets from her father who learned from his father. When she and her husband, Bob Macdonald, bought Island Fishnet in 1973 her knowledge of making nets was a transferable skill. She and her husband used a 10’ x 4’ netmaking machine that weighed several hundred pounds and occupied its own room in the store.
How did the garbage in the huge floating junk piles come together, you might be wondering? There are big systems of swirling, circular currents in the oceans that are powered by the earth’s rotation and by wind patterns. These systems are called gyres and there are five of them in the world. In their centers, whirlpool-like currents draw in anything floating by. The largest of all the piles of floating trash is the Great Pacific between California and Hawaii and it is estimated that it contains 79,000 tons of plastic bottles, tires, toothbrushes and fishing litter.
So – what can we do, what is currently being done to solve this problem? Captain Moore was quoted as saying it would bankrupt any country that tried to clean up what is already in the water. Fortunately, a few of the people who wanted to help have found ways to combine cleanup and entrepreneurial opportunities making useful products out of the recycled trash.
Some time back Ford Motor Co. said they planned to use recycled plastics in their manufacturing process. Today they are the first automaker to use recycled ocean plastics to produce wiring harness clips for the Ford Bronco Sport models. After the discarded nylon fishing net plastic is washed, dried and extruded, the small pellets are injection-molded into the shape of the clips Ford uses. The material used for the wiring harness clips is collected from the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. The clips weigh five grams and hook onto the Bronco second-row seat and guide wires that power airbags. Ford plans to make additional parts out of recycled marine plastics – transmission brackets, wire shields and floor side rails.
In a smaller way, Wharf Warp was created by a husband/wife team to recycle discarded lobster rope. The couple has reclaimed twelve tons of discarded lobster rope that were part of a buyback program in 2009. Each doormat uses six pounds of lobster rope. Within a short time after the buyback, about fifteen small companies had started making welcome mats.
Some, like Mary Crowley, are doing cleanup work. She formed Ocean Voyage Institute in 1979 to bring the accumulating piles of plastics in the oceans to peoples’ attention and has been able to fund the use of big boats and crews for a month’s work of cleanup. Her boat was able to bring back 42 tons of garbage for recycling.
While most people describe these ocean trash piles as collections of garbage and fishing gear, that’s close but not quite accurate. What may start out as separate units of trash eventually decompose and become smaller units, becoming what they call microplastics. Most of the trash is not biodegradable so it breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. From a distance, it looks more like a cloudy soup than a pile of trash, neither is a very appealing vision.
What can you do to help? You can Google products made with recycled ocean trash. Maybe it’s time to buy another vehicle and you might think of a Ford because they are trying to make this trash recycling work. If you need another welcome mat for the front door, check out the mats made from old lobster rope – all different sizes and some really interesting colors.