Death Nets Drift into Boynton Waters by John Christopher Fine, NAUI #4431
Captain Craig Smart spotted it from the fly bridge of his 34-foot dive boat, Starfish Enterprise as he was returning to port. From the surface it was a mass of plastic floats. A crudely made wooden support float held a great dark mass hanging down below. CaptainSmart circled it, carefully keeping his vessel from getting too close. Divers aboard wondered at the purpose of the now abandoned netting.
I studied the mass hanging in turquoise water about three hundred yards off Boynton Beach, Florida’s beach south of the Inlet and knew it was a net. What kind of net would be apparent when diver Elaine Blum of Lake Worth, Florida, pulled it aboard another boat and brought it into the Boynton Beach Municipal Marina. It was an abandoned death net.
Gill nets are commonly used by fishermen in the open oceans of the world. These nets are often set at night. The relatively small mesh is suspended by floats. Each end of the net is buoyed by a large float. Sometimes these nets are left by fishermen for a week or more. When they return the netting is pulled aboard their vessel and the catch removed.
What is caught is indiscriminately caught. Endangered sea turtles often fall victim to entanglements in these gill nets. Dolphins and whales have been snared in the mesh.Sharks often are found tangled and fish, many species protected by size limits so that small ones ordinarily must be returned to the ocean, are found dead.
Drift nets or gill nets are illegal in Florida waters. They are illegal in most countries now that attention has been drawn to their deadly and indiscriminate killing power. Illegal or not many fishermen in the U.S., Bahamas, Haiti, Central and South America, and other parts of the world risk arrest and confiscation of their vessels for the quick profits to be made setting these nets.
“There was a five foot Caribbean reef shark caught in the net. It was still oozing blood from bites by trigger fish. There were baby lobsters tangled in it, dead fish. I cut the shark free but it was dead.” Elaine Blum was clearly distraught by her discovery. “I just wanted to get the net out of there so it wouldn’t kill any more. It was tangled on an old picnic table underwater. That’s what held it there,” she said.
“Better call the Marine Patrol,” one of the sport fishing captains advised. He had his knife out and was cutting lead weights off the net to re-use, saving some of the small plastic floats. “Tell them so they can keep their eyes open and know someone is illegally gill netting.”
It was good advice, but the patrol zone of Florida’s various law enforcement agencies is so great, their resources stretched so thin, and their responsibility for drug interdiction and homeland security so great, that illegal fishing activities, even near Florida’s coast, can go undetected.
The large float was crudely made. Even the main pole, that was placed through a wooden cross supported by empty plastic oil jugs, had been carved by hand. Knife marks on the pole were evident. The mesh net itself was purchased, but the support was hand made.
How many of these illegal gill nets exist off Florida’s coast? How many are lost by commercial fishermen that operate in international waters that drift for years in the ocean continuing to kill? How many nets float just beneath the surface and entangle and kill marine mammals, turtles, fish and other marine organisms? There are no statistics. These are ghost nets that continue to kill long after the fishermen that set them have themselves gone on to other pursuits.
What do we do when the oceans are depleted of marine life? Life on Earth depends on the oceans for food. Statistics gathered by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) described a ‘silent emergency’ facing the world’s children today: Starvation “kills well over a quarter of a million children every week.” The World Food Council reported that one billion people in the world are hungry and “chronically undernourished.” Every year 13 to 18 million people die from starvation. Every minute of every day 24 people starve to death, 18 of those are children under 5 years of age.
We cannot waste precious resources. Certainly not in an age when more people inhabit Planet Earth than ever before. “It is not Planet Earth. It is Planet Ocean,” the late Dr. F. G. Walton Smith, said. This founding dean of the University of Miami’s Rosensteil School of Oceanographic and Marine Science left that legacy. Land resources are limited and quickly being depleted as vast agricultural areas are being used for habitation. All of us depend on Planet Ocean for life itself. We are all haunted by ghost nets that take life from the ocean and waste it.
NAUI Instructor John Christopher Fine served as a diplomatic official attached to the U.S. State Department, investigating the problems of world hunger around the world. He is a marine biologist and expert on maritime affairs. Fine has authored 24 books including The Hunger Road, which describes the crisis of food resources and starvation.