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How “ghost gears” are haunting Cape Town’s ocean wildlife4 minutes read

Nets, lines, cages, etc are either lost or intentionally dumped in the ocean at an estimated rate of one tonne per minute

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How "ghost gears" are haunting Cape Town's ocean wildlife

Far out in the South Atlantic Ocean, invisible to the South African coastline, diver Pascal Van Erp surfaced with an abandoned lobster cage covered in algae and other marine organisms.

He pulled it up to the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace vessel conducting research around Mount Vema, an underwater mountain located around 1,600 kilometres northwest of Cape Town.

Underneath the layer of the dark algae was a green hard plastic cage used to trap lobsters, with a small white pot attached to it.

“We are a thousand miles off the coast of South Africa and finding abandoned fishing gear here… is extremely disgusting,” Greenpeace marine biologist and oceans expert Thilo Maack told reporters on board the ship.

Known as “ghost gear”, abandoned fishing objects make up a significant volume of plastic pollution in seas and oceans around the world and can trap large marine wildlife, causing them slow, painful deaths.

Nets, lines, cages, crayfish traps and gillnets are either lost or intentionally dumped in the ocean at an estimated average rate of one tonne per minute.

An underwater drone revealed Mount Vema, where the Greenpeace mission operated, had not escaped such pollution. Images showed a scattered array of fishing ropes and nets clinging to the 4,600-metre mountain, whose peak sits 26 metres below the surface.

Researchers on the three-week expedition could not determine how long the abandoned gear had been sitting there — but say it could have been there for more than a year given the state it was in.

The United Nations estimates that 640,000 tonnes of fishing equipment is discarded around the oceans each year, the weight equivalent of 50,000 double-decker buses, said Greenpeace.

They are estimated to account for 10 per cent of the plastic waste in the oceans and seas globally, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).

But “in some specific ocean areas, fishing gear makes up the vast majority of plastic rubbish, including over 85 per cent of the rubbish on the seafloor on seamounts and ocean ridges,” as well as in the Great Pacific gyre, a Greenpeace report said Wednesday.

‘Zombie in the water’ –

Retired Marine Biologist Professor Robert Anderson examines a ghost fishing device onboard the Greenpeace vessel Artic Sunrise at the end of an exploration of Vema Sea Mount, on October 31, 2019. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

From their underwater resting ground, discarded non-biodegradable materials continue to catch fish and crustaceans, and ensnare large mammals such as dolphins.

“(Ghost gear) is like a zombie in the water,” Maack said. “Nobody takes out the catch, but it’s still catching.”

Such pollution kills and injures more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles annually, according to UK-based charity World Animal Protection.

More than 300 endangered sea turtles were killed in a single incident last year after swimming into a what was believed to be a discarded fishing net in southern Mexico.

“It’s a huge problem because as they are initially set to trap and kill marine wildlife, they will do that for as long as they are in the oceans,” Greenpeace Africa’s campaigner Bukelwa Nzimande, 29, told reporters.

Plastic can take up to 600 years to break down, eventually disintegrating into harmful micro-particles that are ingested by fish and end up in people’s food.

Bottom fishing was banned on Mount Vema in 2007 by the Namibia-based South-East Atlantic Fishing Organisation (SEAFO).

But only one per cent of the world’s oceans are covered by regional management bodies like SEAFO.

‘Cycle of death’ –

A diver prepares himself before diving in the Vema Sea Mount waters, on October 31, 2019. – Abandoned fishing objects, also known as “ghost gear”, make up a significant volume of plastic pollution in seas and oceans around the world and can trap large marine wildlife, causing them slow, painful deaths. (Photo by MARCO LONGARI / AFP)

Around 64 per cent of oceans lie outside national jurisdiction, according to the UN.

Environmental groups are lobbying the intergovernmental organisation to come up with comprehensive governance systems that better protect marine life.

They are also pushing for stricter measures forcing fishermen to retrieve lost gear or pay for its retrieval.

Meanwhile, non-profit organisations have taken it upon themselves to do some cleaning of the seas and oceans.

“For me, removing lost gear is the most exciting (thing),” said diver Van Erp, founder of Dutch-headquartered clean-up charity Ghost Fishing, which has been operating since 2012.

“When I find it I’m really thrilled,” said the 43-year old, his bright orange suit still dripping from his hour-long dive in the cold South Atlantic Ocean waters.

“It keeps catching. It’s sort of a cycle of death.”

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East Africa News

Massive rains lead to evacuation of 6,000 Rwandans in high-risk areas

Official says some 4,000 of the displaced persons are staying with their relatives, 1,500 living in government-rented houses

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Massive rains lead to evacuation of 6,000 Rwandans in high-risk areas
Rwandan Minister of Infrastructure Claver Gatete (L) speaks at a press conference in Kigali, capital of Rwanda, on Dec. 18, 2019. The Rwandan government on Wednesday said it has evacuated close to 6,000 residents from high-risk zones in different parts of the country threatened by heavy rains in the first three weeks of December. (Xinhua/Lyu Tianran)

Emergency and other government officials in Rwanda have evacuated about 6,000 Rwandans living in high-risk zones threatened by heavy rainfall in different parts of the country.

Minister of Local Government Anastase Shyaka told a press conference on Wednesday in Kigali that the citizens had been threatened by excessive rainfall in the past few weeks hence the evacuation.

Shyaka said some 4,000 of the displaced persons are staying with their relatives, 1,500 living in government-rented houses while about 300 others were being temporarily sheltered in schools, a Xinxua news agency report said.

Environment Minister, Jeanne d’Arc Mujawamariya also said at the joint briefing that although the heavy rains had began to cease in the third week of December, disaster management and mitigation measures would still be necessary.

Another top government official and infrastructure minister, Claver Gatete said floods and landslides caused by heavy rains in 2019 have affected 22 national roads, and 42 district roads and bridges. An official assessment showed that the evacuated persons lived in high-risk zones to be hit by heavy rains hence the government’s action.

Official data showed that extreme weather last year has caused more than 250 deaths in Rwanda, and this year have left more than 100 people dead, some 5,000 houses damaged and more than 9,000 hectares of plantations destroyed.

A United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) report also said that in East Africa, at least 280 people have been killed and more than 2.8 million others affected by unusually heavy rainfall and flooding this year.

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Conservation News

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides

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DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
A bicycle carrier cycles with a load of about 300 kilograms of charcoal to sell in Goma, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo(Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

Lush rainforest covers millions of hectares of the Democratic Republic of Congo, a central part of Earth’s natural defence against global warming — but it is under severe threat from a perfect storm of mismanagement.

An array of global and local NGOs are in a tense fight to save the rainforest, which lost an area twice the size of Luxembourg last year alone, according to Global Forest Watch.

But the problems run right through DR Congo society — from the poor who rely on charcoal for fuel in a country with meagre supplies of other power, to the senior officials who profit from illegal logging.

“There are lawmakers and soldiers involved. They don’t pay taxes — it’s unfair competition,” says Felicien Liofo, head of a wood craftsmen’s association.

Local police say soldiers simply rip apart the fences around the forest and threaten to shoot anyone who tries to stop them.

– NGOs fight back 

The government faces a daunting challenge to protect the rainforest. 

Its 2002 forestry code imposed a moratorium on new concessions and regulated the number of trees that could be chopped down under existing permits, but officials complain of a lack of resources.

Felicien Malu, a provincial environment coordinator, has roughly 1,200 workers to cover a province twice the size of Portugal.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
Joseph Bisole, 27, a former child soldier in the armed forces of the Democratic Republic of Congo, manufactures charcoal as part of the WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Ecomakala project to reduce illegal charcoal production, in Burungu, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

But his staff, he says, are not paid and lack even the basic tools of their trade — boats, motorcycles or pickup trucks. 

“We can’t organise control missions because there are many rivers to cross and unpaved roads,” he says.

His predecessor in the job was suspended for embezzlement, underlining how corruption feeds the problem of deforestation.

NGOs have launched a multi-pronged attack against the plunder.

Greenpeace Africa and a coalition of eight NGOs from DRC and neighbouring Congo-Brazzaville have demanded a halt to all industrial activities in the millions of hectares of peatland shared by the two countries.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
Two beneficiaries of a WWF (World Wildlife Fund) pilot project to produce domestic bio gas to combat illegal charcoal production look at their new gas cooker in their home in Sake, northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo, on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

The ancient wetlands store huge amounts of carbon, but companies are involved in oil exploration, logging and industrial agriculture in the area.

Global Witness investigated the illegal logging trade and earlier this year accused a general in the Congolese army of illegally reselling logging permits.

However, electricity in DRC is a rare luxury, meaning that most Congolese still rely on charcoal as their main fuel supply.

Making charcoal involves chopping down trees and slow-burning the wood in covered ovens — all of which comes at a steep price for the environment.

“I get through a $30 sackful every two months. That’s a fair chunk of what I earn,” says Solange Sekera while shopping at a market in the eastern city of Goma. “We have no other means of preparing meals.”

Our forests may disappear’ –

The charcoal trade — known locally as Makala — is worth millions of dollars and it is attracting armed groups to the Goma area, threatening Virunga natural park, a sanctuary for endangered mountain gorillas. 

More than 2,000 kilometres (1,200 miles) to the west, the reliance on charcoal in Kinshasa is also causing severe problems.

Kinshasa residents consume five million tonnes of wood a year, according to French research group Cirad, and increasing urbanisation is just raising the pressure on the forests.

On the hillsides around the capital, there are scarcely any trees left.

NGOs and the government are once again trying to respond.

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is trying to minimise the impact of charcoal burning by introducing “eco makala” ovens that burn the fuel more efficiently and so use less wood.

DR Congo rainforest attacked on all sides
WWF (World Wildlife Fund) Ecomakala project managers visit a eucalyptus plantation partly intended to produce charcoal in northeastern Democratic Republic of Congo on September 28, 2019. (Photo by ALEXIS HUGUET / AFP)

And President Felix Tshisekedi is trying to boost electricity across the country to reduce demand for wood-based fuel.

He has championed hydroelectric power — and ground was broken in early October on a new dam in Goma.

NGOs and locals are not convinced of the viability of the project, but Tshisekedi is adamant: “Given the current rate of population growth and our energy needs, our forests may disappear by the year 2100,” he says.

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Conservation News

Tropical storm to hit Somalia

Somalia has been hit by floods since October 2019.

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Flooding in Belet Weyne Somalia Dr
Flooding in Belet Weyne Somalia. Photo Credit: OCHA

A tropical storm is currently brewing over the western part of the Indian Ocean and is moving westward towards Somalia. It is expected to make landfall on 7 December 2019. A forecast issued by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the Somali Water and Land Information Management (SWALIM) on Tuesday has warned of heavy rainfall and strong winds over the north and central parts of the Horn of Africa country.

Rain in excess of 100mm is expected in the coastal areas of Saanag, Bari, Nugaal and Mudug regions. FAO has advised those in line of Tropical Storm 06A to take necessary precautions against flash floods and heavy rainfall in the coming days.

African Countries Affected by Floods
African Countries Affected by Floods-2019

Somalia has been hit by floods since October 2019. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), more than 370,000 people have been displaced and even more are in dire need of relief and assistance.

“It is a race against time; but while we must work with authorities to meet today’s needs, it is urgent that we also focus on long-term, durable solutions. Given the increasing impact climate change is having on Somalia, the challenges are only likely to become more frequent and more severe,” said Justin Brady, Head of OCHA Somalia.

Hygiene Kits donated to families and children affected by floods in Somalia
Hygiene Kits donated to families and children affected by floods in Somalia. Credit_UNICEF

The Eastern and Central African regions have paid a heavy toll for global warming and are experiencing unusually heavy rainfall and floods: These, in turn, have caused flash floods, landslides, the destruction of properties and crops, the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people and fatalities in the hundreds.

OCHA places the number of those impacted by the adverse weather conditions at 2.5 million. Kenya has recorded the highest number of fatalities at 250 as a result of the floods, with the heaviest hit counties being Wajir and West Pokot.

A young boy navigates a flooded road in Somalia
A young boy navigates a flooded road in Somalia. Credit_UNICEF

Djibouti, on the other hand, is grappling with adverse weather conditions and flooding after two years’ worth of rain fell in a single day. Loss of life, property and/or displacements have been registered further afield in Tanzania, Burundi, CAR, Uganda, Ethiopia, Sudan, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

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