• Italian divers have freed a sperm whale caught in discarded fishing nets.
  • It is just one of many whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine mammals that get caught in ghost nets each year.
  • Clean-ups are taking place around the world, and it’s hoped education and cooperation across the seafood supply chain will help curb ocean litter.

Just because a net is no longer being used doesn’t mean it can’t continue to catch things. Italian divers have freed a sperm whale entangled in a fishing net off the northern coast of Sicily.

The coastguard was alerted to the stricken mammal by biologists working in a nearby turtle recovery centre. A team of divers was dispatched to cut the whale free, which had a large amount of net and floats wrapped around its tail.

After being freed, the whale swam off, apparently unharmed.

The nets that keep on fishing

The unfortunate whale is just one, very visible, example of the damage discarded fishing gear is doing to the marine environment. Lost or abandoned nets get caught in rocks and coral, and continue to trap wildlife - from fish to turtles, whales and dolphins. This ‘ghost fishing’ often then attracts other scavengers, which get trapped themselves.

Ghost fishing cycle
Ghost fishing cycle.
Image: Ghostdiving.org

Each year, more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles get caught in nets, lines, traps and pots.

It is estimated that somewhere between 600,000 to 800,000 tonnes of discarded fishing gear ends up in our oceans every year. This accounts for a large portion of the plastic waste in marine ecosystems.

Without human intervention and clean-ups, these ghost nets will continue to fish for hundreds of years because they are purposely made from materials which don’t easily break down.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the ocean?

Our oceans cover 70% of the world’s surface and account for 80% of the planet’s biodiversity. We can't have a healthy future without healthy oceans - but they're more vulnerable than ever because of climate change and pollution.

Tackling the grave threats to our oceans means working with leaders across sectors, from business to government to academia.

The World Economic Forum, in collaboration with the World Resources Institute, convenes the Friends of Ocean Action, a coalition of leaders working together to protect the seas. From a programme with the Indonesian government to cut plastic waste entering the sea to a global plan to track illegal fishing, the Friends are pushing for new solutions.

Climate change is an inextricable part of the threat to our oceans, with rising temperatures and acidification disrupting fragile ecosystems. The Forum runs a number of initiatives to support the shift to a low-carbon economy, including hosting the Alliance of CEO Climate Leaders, who have cut emissions in their companies by 9%.

Is your organisation interested in working with the World Economic Forum? Find out more here.

Making fishing a circular economy

The Global Ghost Gear Initiative has launched a best-practice framework for managing fishing gear, recommending solutions and approaches across the seafood supply chain, from gear manufacturers to fishers.

Other potential solutions include biodegradable fishing gear and designs that promote recycling and incentives to return gear at the end of its life.

Ghost fishing
An estimated 600,000-800,000 tonnes of discarded fishing gear ends up in the ocean every year.
Image: Ghost Fishing UK

But illegal fishing remains a block to progress. Illegal boats sometimes dump equipment to avoid detection and fines.

Cleaning up

There are a number of charitable organizations, such as Healthy Seas, which run clean-up operations and collaborate with fishers, fish farms and local communities to help prevent waste nets from ending up at sea.

Elsewhere, companies are working to turn marine waste into useful products once more. Aquafil uses nylon waste from fishing nets to create new yarn for the fashion industry.

Plastix Global recycles discarded plastics to be used in green products including phone cases, furniture and kayaks. And Bureo transforms discarded nets into sunglasses and skateboards.

How UpLink is helping to find innovations to solve challenges like this

UpLink is a digital platform to crowdsource innovations in an effort to address the world’s most pressing challenges.

It is an open platform designed to engage anyone who wants to offer a contribution for the global public good. The core objective is to link up the best innovators to networks of decision-makers, who can implement the change needed for the next decade. As a global platform, UpLink serves to aggregate and guide ideas and impactful activities, and make connections to scale-up impact.

Hosted by the World Economic Forum, UpLink is being designed and developed in collaboration with Salesforce, Deloitte and LinkedIn.

UpLink is now running the COVID Challenge, which aims to surface the best solutions and responses to COVID-19.