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European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency
News article31 October 2023European Climate, Infrastructure and Environment Executive Agency

LIFE ghostbusters tackle the deadly legacy of abandoned fishing gear

They’re known as ghost nets - but the damage they do to Europe’s coastal habitat and marine species is all too real. Meet the team of “elite LIFE ghostbusters” on a mission to clean up the Mediterranean.

© LIFE20 NAT/IT/000067. All rights are reserved. Licensed to the European Union under conditions

The sun is shining on the Gulf of Asinara off the northwest coast of Sardinia (Italy), but beneath the sparkling blue waters lies a hidden menace - abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear, known to experts as ALDFG, but more commonly called ghost nets. 

On a small fishing boat, a team from Strong Sea LIFE is busy locating and recovering ghost nets from beneath the waves. Thanks to the EUR 2.7 million, five-year LIFE project, three kilometres of nets, dozens of pots and other abandoned fishing gear have already been recovered from the seabed.  

“We have been able to recover fishing gear abandoned in the Gulf of Asinara thanks to fishermen and divers who report it to us and collaborate in its removal,” says Serena Lomiri, a marine biologist with the Institute for Environmental Protection and Research (ISPRA). “Police divers have also helped us recover more than one kilometre of ghost nets.” ISPRA is the coordinator of the Strong Sea LIFE project.  

“We also carry out monitoring of the seabed to see any impacts caused by these ghost nets,” adds her colleague Paolo Tomassetti. “We need to know if there has been any irreversible damage to the marine environment and what we can do to restore it.” 

In the EU, an estimated 20 per cent of fishing gear is lost at sea, accounting for nearly a third of marine litter in European seas. Over time, it breaks down into micro and nano plastic particles, which pollute the seas and marine species. Ghost nets also catch and kill fish and other marine animals and have attracted seabed waste

Strong Sea Life has also launched the SEAWatcher app, aimed at fishermen, diving and sailing enthusiasts, tourists and citizens. The app enables users to report geolocalised waste - whether beached or submerged - as well as marine species of special interest. 

“There are many reasons why fishing gear gets abandoned at sea,” says Benedetto Sechi, President of FLAG North Sardinia, a coalition of the fishing industry, public bodies and other organisations with an interest in the island’s coastal and marine habitats. “Sometimes the nets are illegally cut, but it can also happen that they get severed accidentally by other vessels. The crucial element is to verify the important sites within the gulf area and to recover the missing gear.” 

Whatever the cause, Strong Sea Life is already having an impact on protecting and improving the conservation status of seagrass beds and coral reefs across a network of Natura 2000 sites. Three thousand square metres of seagrass meadows and a thousand square metres of coral reefs are now free of ALDFG, and there are plans to recycle the plastic. 


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