Understanding the sources and effects of abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear on marine turtles in northern Australia
Wilcox, C and Heathcote, G and Goldberg, J and Gunn, R and Peel, D and Hardesty, BD, Understanding the sources and effects of abandoned, lost, and discarded fishing gear on marine turtles in northern Australia, Conservation Biology, 29, (1) pp. 198-206. ISSN 0888-8892 (2015) [Refereed Article]
Globally, 6.4 million tons of fishing gear are lost in the oceans annually. This gear (i.e., ghost nets), whether accidentally lost, abandoned, or deliberately discarded, threatens marine wildlife as it drifts with prevailing currents and continues to entangle marine organisms indiscriminately. Northern Australia has some of the highest densities of ghost nets in the world, with up to 3 tons washing ashore per kilometer of shoreline annually. This region supports globally significant populations of internationally threatened marine fauna, including 6 of the 7 extant marine turtles. We examined the threat ghost nets pose to marine turtles and assessed whether nets associated with particular fisheries are linked with turtle entanglement by analyzing the capture rates of turtles and potential source fisheries from nearly 9000 nets found on Australia's northern coast. Nets with relatively larger mesh and smaller twine sizes (e.g., pelagic drift nets) had the highest probability of entanglement for marine turtles. Net size was important; larger nets appeared to attract turtles, which further increased their catch rates. Our results point to issues with trawl and drift-net fisheries, the former due to the large number of nets and fragments found and the latter due to the very high catch rates resulting from the net design. Catch rates for fine-mesh gill nets can reach as high as 4 turtles/100 m of net length. We estimated that the total number of turtles caught by the 8690 ghost nets we sampled was between 4866 and 14,600, assuming nets drift for 1 year. Ghost nets continue to accumulate on Australia's northern shore due to both legal and illegal fishing; over 13,000 nets have been removed since 2005. This is an important and ongoing transboundary threat to biodiversity in the region that requires attention from the countries surrounding the Arafura and Timor Seas.