“Oh, that’s gross! That stinks!” It was a windy, drizzly grey dawn in Portland harbour, and a team of Ghost Fishing UK divers were trying not to retch as they pulled in a 100m-long gill-net.
Tangled in the mess of hopelessly trapped crabs and fish was the rotting carcass of a diving bird.
The divers pulled in the remainder of the net and set about sifting through it, cutting free anything that was still alive.
“Hope that one makes it,” said one of the divers, releasing an exhausted crab back over the side.
This is the gruesome reality of a massive environmental issue – a phenomenon that is having a devastating impact on marine life and its habitats.
When fishing equipment such as huge trawl- and gill-nets and strings of lobster- and crab-pots are lost to the ocean, they continue to catch fish. It’s called ghost-fishing.
Pulling in what are hoped to be empty nets.
The UN’s conservative estimate is that 640,000 tonnes of fishing-gear is lost in the oceans every year. Almost half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is made up of ghost-gear.
It isn’t only the unintended catch that succumbs to a needless death. The dead and dying animals act as bait for larger ones. Unwitting cetaceans and diving birds head into the nets for an easy meal and become tangled, drowning in nets that are often heavily disguised by biological growth.
Dr James Barnett carries out post-mortems on stranded marine mammals with British Divers Marine Life Rescue, and has worked with the Sea Life Trust at the Cornish Seal Sanctuary.
“We had one last year on a 35kg seal with 35kg of net on it – it was just horrendous,” he says. “It affects their swimming; it affects the ability to feed.”
But it is not just nets. Lost strings of creel-pots not only continue catching and baiting in a vicious circle, but the ropes can pose issues too. There were several reports last year alone in the Scottish Isles of whales being found caught up in them, and one report of a serious incident involving a diver becoming entangled.
In 2014, professional diving instructor Richard Walker met a group of Dutch divers who were part of an organisation called the Ghost Fishing Foundation, set up in 2009 by Pascal Van Erp.
Richard joined them, recovering a huge trawl-net from the wreck of the Argo. Impressed by their teamwork and dedication, he decided to bring the project to the UK.
“Every dive I’ve done in the sea around the UK, I’ve seen some sort of lost fishing-gear,” Richard explains. “I wanted to see if we could set up ‘cells’ of trained divers around the UK who could go out and recover this gear safely.”
The Dutch divers showed the Brits how it was done, and the small UK team managed significant clean-ups in Scapa Flow, resulting in the removal of several tonnes of lost fishing gear.
The ambition was growing, and the mission was on to train more divers and grow the cells of divers around the UK who could undertake this work.
After many months of late nights spent settling paperwork and licences, Ghost Fishing UK started to take shape as a serious organisation.
Richard and I hooked up with BSAC instructor and friend Fred Nunn, and a committee was formed.