“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.
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.
Appeared in DIVER December 2019
Ghost fishing dives are dangerous, there is no doubting that. The consequences of becoming tangled in a net or rope and being dragged to the surface by an unstoppable lift-bag are a very big concern.
We didn’t want anything bad ever to happen to any of our divers, so we began to create a training course. We didn’t do it by halves.
We began with a few hand-picked divers who were experienced in technical diving and had a certain amount of skill in hostile conditions. Capability in poor visibility, with a high regard for team awareness, was essential.
Ghost gear is something that divers are careful to avoid on their dives, steering well clear of monofilament nets and lines. In Ghost Fishing, we’re putting ourselves deliberately in very close contact with this stuff. It is essential that our trainers are very experienced in ghost-gear recoveries.
I can recall one dive in Scapa Flow at 48m in which Rich Walker was head-down, sawing away at a particularly stubborn piece of net.
It was dark, and all manner of detritus was turning the visibility to near zero. As he sawed away, I filmed and took photos in my role as number 3, or “overwatch”.
Unknown to Rich, a huge layer of net peeled away above and enveloped him, covering his manifold.
I tucked my camera well out of the way. I leaned in and gave him a clenched fist sign to “stop”. He froze, and I carefully pulled his manifold – followed by him – out from under the heavy old net.
We had both done the right thing, and disaster was averted. The last thing you need is a wriggler, or someone who spins around the moment they know something is wrong.
Several years on, one of our team got a bolt-snap hitched on a near invisible gill-net that he was cutting. His team-mate reacted immediately and fixed the issue. I looked on and was pleased that our training methods were working.
We learned a lot in a short space of time. We did not want divers on single cylinders in those situations, and we had to insist on a high level of team-awareness, skill and ethos.
The Beta training course was rolled out at Vobster using old nets and pots and, despite a convenient training site with excellent facilities on hand, two days just wasn’t enough.
We tweaked the course, and spread it over three days plus theory sessions. We had to do skills workshops with the divers first, before we could move on to the surveying and cutting and lifting.
The final polish and attention to detail makes all the difference in heavily project-oriented dives.
There is no time on a Ghost Fishing mission to discuss equipment, nor how you manage gas reserves, nor what this bit of kit does or that bit is for.
With a job to do, everyone needs to be on the same page, and the diving should be a non-issue. Our standards ensure that any diver can dive with whoever else is on the boat that day.
The Ghost Fishing UK course is free. Divers are selected based on diving experience, level of engagement with our charity and willingness to devote their free time to the work.
There are six theory modules, three diving days plus a final experience dive on a real recovery. Divers must pass all components of the course before they join team recoveries.
You will never hear: “Sorry, I lost my buoyancy” coming from a qualified Ghost Fishing diver.
Recovering ghost gear is expensive. Many early recoveries were self-funded by the team-divers. In Scapa Flow, most of the costs were covered by animal charity World Animal Protection but, elsewhere, we were surveying and removing gear at our own expense.
Healthy Seas, an environmental initiative and close partner of Ghost Fishing NL, was established in 2013. It aims to remove marine litter, especially fishing-nets, from the seas for the purpose of recycling it into textile products.
Recovered nets are up-cycled into Econyl yarn and used to create new products, and the “Journey from Waste to Wear”’ initiative operates in Europe, focusing on the North Sea, Adriatic and Mediterranean Sea.
Healthy Seas took a keen interest in Ghost Fishing UK. In 2019 it funded more than a dozen survey and recovery dives, taking a huge financial burden off the divers, many of whom were struggling to fit their personal diving around Ghost Fishing, never mind their personal lives.
Ghost-fishing doesn’t end with getting nets back on the boat. There is a whole load of work to be done afterwards.
The nets need to be loaded up, transported and unloaded back at the storage depot, and often a couple of us won’t get home until gone midnight.
We charter hardboats for the recovery work, and never ask for financial favours.
It’s critical that we support the diving industry. We usually charter boats when they might not have work, and it’s good publicity for them. If we support the dive industry, more divers will be out there and reporting ghost gear.
Ghost Fishing UK regularly gives talks at dive-clubs, shops and events. The charity has featured on Sky News and on the BBC’s The One Show, Springwatch, Spotlight South West and Inside Out.
Public support and funding is critical to keep the divers active. It costs around £1000 a day to recover ghost-gear, apart from surveying and planning removals.
This year, the week-long Cornwall project was funded by the Sea Life Trust, which also runs the Cornish Seal Sanctuary. Each year it takes in some five animals that have found themselves in difficulty as a direct result of ghost gear. It can cost £1000 to rehabilitate one animal.
This was a golden opportunity to meet the public and local environmental groups. A plan was formed to not only remove as much ghost gear as possible, but to engage with the public in the height of summer.
Ghost Fishing UK is resolutely not anti-fishing. The UK has a significant fishing industry, and it makes more sense to work with it rather than against it.
The team has been supported by several fishing-vessels that have provided their boats for film-crews or assisted with hauling in lost gear.
“Nets have become cheaper, which means they are now becoming more disposable,” says Nigel Hodge, fisherman and skipper of Seawatch.
“The price of fish is now a lot higher. A really good start would be to rebuild the burnt bridge. There is a way forward working with fishermen.”
Over the coming years, Ghost Fishing UK will focus more on working with the fishing industry.
The interactions we’ve had with the community so far have been very positive. They are just as frustrated about ghost-gear as we are, and don’t want to lose their stuff. And unfortunately fishing gear is almost always made of plastic now.
We have an online reporting system, and divers are encouraged to report ghost-gear whenever they see it.
The data is critical in building evidence of the scale of the problem, and we will then make every effort to recover it. By reporting the ghost-gear they see, divers can improve the health of the ocean.
The team is made up of volunteers, and the committee roles in particular come at a personal cost to those who give up their time to keep the charity running and the workload grows all the time.
Treasurer Fred Nunn is at the coal-face for most of the year, and not a day goes by where he is not sorting the accounts, licences, washing equipment, stacking fishing nets, preparing training courses or organising the survey and recovery trips.
There is always lots of work to be done, from admin, social media, responding to contacts, fund-raising, liaising with fisheries and public outreach. It has become a full-time, unpaid job for some of us in addition to our regular jobs.
I said at the start that this would take over our lives. I can safely say that it has!
If you’re interested in volunteering for Ghost Fishing UK, visit ghostfishing.org/uk and start with its FAQs page.