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Plastic Fishing Waste Threatens Endangered Wildlife in Ganges River

Plastic Fishing Waste Threatens Endangered Wildlife in Ganges River
Pollution on the Ganges River. Kaushik Ghosh / Moment Open / Getty Images

The most polluted river in the world continues to be exploited through fishing practices that threaten endangered wildlife, new research shows.

The Ganges River is a quagmire of raw sewage, toxic waste and overfishing from the crowded cities along its waterway. It is also home to the endangered Ganges river dolphin and the critically endangered three-striped roofed turtle, along with other threatened marine species.

As part of the National Geographic Society's "Sea to Source: Ganges" expedition, a study was conducted to understand how much plastic pollution or "ghost" fishing threatens the native wildlife. Fishing nets are common in the river, and entanglements frequently occur.

According to interviews conducted with the local fishing community as part of the study, nets and equipment are commonly left in the river. Researchers at the University of Exeter, who gathered data for the study, found disposal systems in short supply.

"The Ganges River supports some of the world's largest inland fisheries, but no research has been done to assess plastic pollution from this industry, and its impacts on wildlife," said Dr. Sarah Nelms, a postdoctoral associate at the Center for Ecology and Conservation at the University of Exeter, and an author of the study.

"Ingesting plastic can harm wildlife, but our threat assessment focused on entanglement, which is known to injure and kill a wide range of marine species."

Professor Heather Koldewey, of the Zoological Society of London and the University of Exeter, and a National Geographic Fellow believes the "circular economy" – the reuse of products and equipment that have monetary value – can play a role in keeping nets out of the river, especially when nets are made of durable nylon material which can be reused to make carpet or clothing.

"Collection and recycling of nylon 6 has strong potential as a solution because it would cut plastic pollution and provide an income," she said.

Plastic pollution in marine and freshwater ecosystems continues on an increasing scale to cause wildlife death. But Koldewey believes behavior changes through this new research could have positive effects.

"This is a complex problem that will require multiple solutions – all of which must work for both local communities and wildlife."

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