The impact of ghost nets on ocean wildlife

Ghost nets are a deadly trap for ocean creatures. Any discarded fishing gear that floats in our oceans or gets snagged on the seabed is lethal for wildlife. But how much of a problem is this ghost gear, and what can we do about it?

How much of the plastic in our oceans is fishing gear?

A lot of people claim that fishing gear is the biggest source of ocean plastic. But is that true?

According to scientific evidence presented to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear is estimated to make up approximately 10% of all plastic in the ocean.¹

However, these floating killers do represent a large amount of the surface plastics gathering in the great ocean gyres. It is estimated that plastic lines, ropes and fishing nets comprise 52 percent of the plastic mass in the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’², which contrary to popular belief is not an island of plastic – but rather individual pieces of rubbish floating over a wide expanse.

How do ghost nets and abandoned fishing gear hurt wildlife?

Ghost nets and other fishing gear are one of the most lethal types of marine debris in our oceans.³

Lost and abandoned gillnets, trawl nets and crab pots are designed to catch and kill fish. So it is no surprise that when they are lost at sea, they continue doing exactly what they were designed for – catching and killing unsuspecting animals.

Marine animals such as sea lions, turtles, seabirds can be severely injured or die from choking and entanglement in fishing line and nets. Some animals become weighed down or unable to move, reducing their ability to catch prey and avoid predators. Fishing lines or nets can become wrapped around their throats or limbs, cutting into their skin. This leads to severe lacerations, infection or even the amputation of their flippers, tails or flukes.

Unfortunately, the danger doesn’t stop there. The fish and other animals who become entangled in nets or trapped in pots can attract other predators that come looking for food, who then also become trapped in the fishing gear – a vicious and deadly cycle. Over the years, when the fishing gear does break down, smaller nylon and plastic pieces can also be eaten by wildlife, leading to life threatening internal blockages.

What is AMCS doing to stop ghost nets?

In the Northern Territory, through the Keep Top End Coasts Healthy alliance, we have been supporting Aboriginal Ranger Groups to tackle the tide of marine debris washing up on their otherwise pristine coast, including ghost nets washing up from international waters. By recovering these nets, we can reduce the amount of fishing gear that is entangling and killing our wildlife in the north.

Ultimately the threat of ghost gear and abandoned fishing nets is a global problem, and we need a global solution. AMCS is a member of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), a collaboration between conservationists, governments and industry bodies which seeks to scale up solutions, drive fisheries reform and change policies – ensuring that lost or damaged fishing gear is recovered and brought back to shore, before it can hurt wildlife.

We are also working to ensure marine debris and ghost gear is tackled as part of new international treaties. We are fighting to ensure that human activities are strictly assessed and properly managed, so that issues like lost fishing gear are considered when allowing fisheries to operate in international waters.



  1. Macfadyen G, Huntington T, Cappell R (2009). Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear. UNEP Regional Seas Reports and Studies, No.185; FAO Fisheries and Aquaculture Technical Paper No. 523. United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) / Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome.
  2. Lebreton, L., Slat, B., Ferrari, F., Sainte-Rose, B., Aitken, J., Marthouse, R., … & Noble, K. (2018). Evidence that the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is rapidly accumulating plastic. Scientific Reports, 8(1), 4666. Available at:
  3. Wilcox, C. et al. (2016). Using expert elicitation to estimate the impacts of plastic pollution on marine wildlife. In Marine Policy (65).