Coral reefs are diverse and important marine ecosystems, supporting a wide array of marine life. Not only do they provide essential structure for habitats, but corals themselves are a unique and beautiful type of animal. However, these animals are also very delicate and are under threat by a preventable problem: marine debris.
Although all types of marine debris can threaten corals, there is one type in particular that can cause a lot of harm: derelict fishing gear (DFG). DFG is fishing equipment that has been lost, abandoned or discarded, and it’s a big problem. These derelict nets, lines, crab pots and other gear can not only cause economic loss, but damage habitat and harm marine animals. Corals, which are animals that also serve as an important habitat for many other creatures, can be particularly impacted by this threat. Corals can be suffocated by nets that smother them and block out the sun, or can be damaged and broken by heavy DFG that snags as it drifts by. These damages don’t only impact these interesting animals, but can affect the entire ecosystem that relies on the coral reef.
In the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, this issue was seen first-hand by NOAA divers in October 2014 when a removal trip in the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument (PMNM) discovered an 11.5 ton “monster net” among the area’s delicate coral reefs. It took divers four days to remove the net in its entirety. Unfortunately, despite a location many miles from larger human populations, the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands are still impacted by marine debris, and nets entangled in corals are not a rare sight.
Luckily, this is a preventable problem and we can work to fix it. By participating in cleanup efforts, we can remove some of the debris that’s already there. Most importantly, we can also work to increase awareness of the problem and prevent more trash and worn-out fishing gear from becoming marine debris. For example, programs such as Fishing for Energy work to prevent more derelict fishing gear from ending up where it shouldn’t; Fishing for Energy gives fishermen a cost-free option to recycle their gear, which is then converted into usable energy.
Don’t forget, we created the problem and we can all be part of the solution! Debris from inland sources can travel far and can still end up as marine debris, so just because you don’t live near the shore or near a beautiful coral reef doesn’t mean that you can’t help! Let’s all do our part to keep our ocean beautiful.