Maui News

Pacific Whale Foundation Retrieves Ghost Nets in Maui Waters

March 15, 2021, 10:52 AM HST
* Updated March 15, 11:17 AM
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  • A crew on a Pacific Whale Foundation boat retrieved a ghost net during a whale-watching excursion in Maui waters. Photo Courtesy: Pacific Whale Foundation
  • A ghost net was discovered bobbing in the waters of Maui and retrieved by the crew of a whale-watching excursion. Photo Courtesy: Pacific Whale Foundation

During a February whale-watching cruise in Maui waters, the crew of PacWhale Eco-Adventures’ Ocean Spirit discovered and retrieved a pollutant bobbing in the ocean — a massive, several-hundred-pound ghost net presumably abandoned by a commercial fishing boat.

Ghost nets — fishing nets or gear that have been abandoned, lost or discarded by fishing vessels — are an increasingly serious threat to whales and dolphins around the globe.

“We are dedicated to retrieving marine debris on our trips and often pick up nets,” said Pac-Whale Eco-Adventures Ecotour Manager Morgan Wittmer. “It’s good for our guests to see dedication to saving the ocean in action.”

The February 20 pollutant retrieval required crew members Captain Dan Kraver, Purser Kalina Eveland and Naturalist Nicole Belknap to safely drag the ghost net onto the boat.

“This net was big and could easily have entangled dolphins, whales, turtles and large fish,” Eveland said. “It’s such a heavy weight in my heart that there are so many of these ghost nets out there. Unless we pull them out ourselves, they will be there forever, harming our ocean and its creatures.”

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Captain Kraver, who has hoisted his fair share of ghost nets from the water, explains that it’s not uncommon to find frog fish and other marine life in ghost nets. While the crew does its best to extricate and release these creatures back to the sea, the process is not always 100 percent effective.  

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Unfortunately, it’s often impossible to shake out all the tiny fish and crabs — some the size of a button — caught up in the netting.

“These fish are just minding their own business,” Kraver said. “It’s not their fault that they were caught up in a piece of marine debris.”

The Pacific Whale Foundation partners with Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary, which works with the community to remove marine debris from Hawaiian waters and help free large marine mammals, such as humpback whales, entangled in debris and fishing gear.

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“The impacts of marine debris are broad-based and will take the efforts of many to address,” said Ed Lyman, natural resource specialist for the sanctuary.

On February 19, another crew on Ocean Voyager spotted an even larger ghost net floating near a competition pod of nine whales and pulled it onboard the ship for proper disposal.

Chief Scientist Jens Currie reported the ghost net to PWF’s partner in marine debris research, Dr. Jennifer Lynch, from the Center for Marine Debris Research at Hawaii Pacific University. Lynch is currently conducting research on ghost nets to determine what they are made of and where they are coming from, with the ultimate goal of providing science-based recommendations for policy and management to mitigate this ongoing threat. 

In conjunction with critical research and legislative efforts around ghost nets and other commercial fishing issues and debris, the Pac Whale Foundation has released Conservation Coordinator Shelby Serra’s next series of articles focusing on fisheries interactions. It’s part of her ongoing overview of major stressors on marine mammals, Making Waves: Policies to Protect the Ocean

Beyond the dangers to ocean wildlife from commercial fishing, this illuminating collection of articles dives deep into the foundation’s primary areas of focus involving threats to whales and dolphins, including marine debris, tourism pressure, climate change and ship strikes.

“It’s important to bring this to light because a lot of these threats can’t be seen,” Serra said. “They’re not visible to most people, even those who live by the ocean.” 

However, there are measures people can take to help mitigate these dangers to whales, dolphins, porpoises and other ocean inhabitants. While these tips for the general public will be presented in detail in the article series, the first and perhaps most important thing that one can do is to become educated on the issue. Begin reading the next Making Waves series here, which examines the dangers of fishing interactions and how the average person can help. To be notified when the next Making Waves installment or PWF blog entry publishes, sign up here

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