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Hunting for Ghost Nets in the Great Lakes

Free-floating fishing nets are a threat to the region, and to the rest of the globe. Removing them is a challenge that requires a local response.
A fishing boat heads out to check nets on Lake Superior from Black River Harbor near Ironwood, Michigan, on March 27th, 2017.

A fishing boat heads out to check nets on Lake Superior from Black River Harbor near Ironwood, Michigan, on March 27th, 2017.

Scott Bretting is a licensed fishing guide who runs the River Rock Inn & Bait Shop in Ashland, Wisconsin. His family came to Lake Superior as German immigrants in the 1880s, and have lived in the area ever since, sometimes working in the fishing industry, sometimes not.

A century ago, the lake was a different place. Still fresh water, still icy cold, but without one of the lurking threats that has sometimes plagued Bretting during his years of fishing on the lake: ghost nets.

Ghost nets are created when the nets—mainly gill nets—laid out by commercial and subsistence fishers come loose and float adrift. In the often-harsh environment of the Great Lakes, which run along the eastern border with Canada and can freeze over in the winter, ice currents and the weather are the main drivers in breaking the fishing gear loose from its moorings.

Made of clear, invisible plastic, these nets don't degrade, and can persist in the environment for decades, where they continue to catch and kill fish, crustaceans, marine mammals, sea turtles, and seabirds. As Bretting has discovered firsthand, they also pose a danger to people who use these environments recreationally.

'By Then It's Too Late'

Before he began running his inn and bait shop, Bretting earned an income by taking customers trolling for lake trout and salmon around the Apostle Islands. He remembers running into a ghost net one time when he had clients onboard his boat. As an experienced fisherman, he knew what to do, and had the gear to cut himself free, but for his passengers, it was a scary experience.

"We'd come to a stop, lost all the gear, all my downrigging was in the water, all my tackle was in the water, lines had broken, baits were lost. It ended a good day of fishing. If the weather had been at all adverse, it could have been uglier," Bretting recalls.

It's true that others have fared worse. Al House, who was president of the Apostle Islands Sport Fisherman's Association before Bretting took over in April of 2018, recalls four people drowning some years ago after they got trapped in a ghost net. While they were trying to escape, a wave came over and sank their boat.

"For experienced fishermen, it's not a big issue because we know what to do. You don't try to get your gear back. You just cut through wires, and then you fit the GPS and report it to the Department of Natural Resources, then they come look for it and try to get it out the water," House says. "The biggest challenge is people who aren't used to it. A few moments of panic and by then it's too late."

Running into a ghost net is not only physically dangerous; it can also deliver a financial punch to those who depend on the lake for their livelihood. "Sometimes it can damage some major equipment or the boat. It's a blow to my business—hundreds of dollars, thousands of dollars," Bretting says.

A Global Issue

Ghost nets are a global problem—a part of the increasingly prominent proliferation of marine debris and plastic pollution. A 2009 report released jointly by the United Nations Environment Program and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimated that abandoned, lost, or discarded fishing gear makes up around 10 percent of marine litter.

A 1997 study estimated that some 100,000 marine mammals die every year from eating, or getting tangled in, fishing gear and related marine debris. An additional one million birds are killed annually from the same causes. Some 71 percent of whales are estimated to have been entangled in fishing gear, although it's unclear how much of this equipment was abandoned rather than in active commercial use.

Seeking Input From Indigenous Groups

So far, the U.S. government has not released a comprehensive analysis of the problems caused by ghost nets on the Great Lakes. In 2015, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration put out a report about the environmental and economic impacts of "ghost fishing," but that report focused on the oceans rather than on the lakes.

Now, local government and an academic group at the University of Wisconsin–Madison are working with recreational anglers and tribal groups, who hold treaty rights over parts of the lake, to reduce the number of nets that break free, and to remove those that are currently in the water. It’s necessary to work across different jurisdictions around the lakes, as there are variations between rules and regulations concerning how ghost nets should be handled. Commercial fishers in Wisconsin, for instance, are required to report any lost nets and have to pay a $343.50 fine if they fail to do so. Other jurisdictions, such as the Bad River Band of the Lake Superior Tribe of Chippewa Indians, are not so strict.

"Some of our work has been talking about the issue and maybe getting the different management agencies to think about the benefits of having to report lost nets," says Titus Seilheimer, fisheries specialist at Wisconsin Sea Grant, a group headquartered at the University of Wisconsin–Madison that is funded by the Marine Debris Program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Office of Response and Restoration. "It's not about punishing people who lose nets, but if we get people thinking about it, we can kind of reduce the risk, and there's fewer nets being lost in the future."

Crowdsourcing the Problem

The group's project extends beyond education: It has also been handing out ghost-net marking kits to recreational anglers, each of which includes a weighted hook, line, and a floating flag. By crowdsourcing information about the location of the nets, and providing citizens with the equipment to pinpoint them more accurately, they were able to retrieve seven ghost nets in 2017, totaling 8,700 feet long.

The researchers, alongside the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission, had previously considered using remotely operated vehicles and sonar to hunt for abandoned nets, before realizing that the cost of such technology would be prohibitive. Instead, they are training scuba divers to identify the locations of nets. They are also training the next generation of tribal fishers to build gill nets and set them correctly, thereby reducing the number of lost nets in the future.

Ultimately, keeping the Great Lakes free of the kind of marine debris that already plagues the oceans will depend on the people who use the lakes.

"There are good actors that tell you that they've never lost a net. Those are the guys that see the weather's changing and they don't take chances," Bretting says. "Then you have the bad actors who have minimal equipment to commercial fish, and they don't go back and check them because the weather's too bad for them to go out for their own safety. They're not very concerned about the environment, and not worried about their nets. It has an unfortunate effect."

New Landscapes is a regular series investigating how environmental policies are affecting communities across America.