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01 September 2020

Ghost fishing: What happens when old nets work overtime?

Jamie Vaughan

Abandoned fishing gear is a danger to marine wildlife – which is why I’ve been spending some of my annual leave helping Ghost Fishing UK to retrieve it.

Most people spend their annual leave visiting far-flung lands, taking family holidays, or simply relaxing at home.

I like to do these things, too, but I also enjoy volunteering my scuba diving skills to help Ghost Fishing UK recover lost fishing equipment from British waters.

Our latest outing was definitely the biggest I’ve undertaken so far – we even made the news!

 

Heading out to Hand Deeps

On Tuesday, 11 August, 10 scuba divers from Ghost Fishing UK headed 8 miles out of Plymouth to Hand Deeps reef where an actively fishing ghost net had been reported by divers from Plymouth Sound BSAC, a local diving club.

A ghost net is a lost, abandoned or discarded fishing net that keeps doing what it was designed to do – catch wildlife.

This was my third operation with Ghost Fishing UK since I completed the training last year. Our expedition to Hand Deeps was to survey and retrieve a 200-metre-long fishing net.

To tackle the net, we began by splitting the diving team into three groups. Each group was given a different direction to begin searching.

Jamie Vaughan surveys the ghost net in full scuba gear underwater.
Before the net can be raised it must be surveyed and assessed – taking note of the wildlife that has become trapped and any potential obstacles.

Within 10 minutes, the net had been located and a marker buoy was sent up for easier location later. The team then spent the next 20 minutes surveying the net and gathering information to allow them to formulate a removal plan.

 

Ascension

But even after 20 minutes, we had yet to reach the end of the net. The 150 metres uncovered so far was full of entangled spider crabs, edible crabs, lobsters and large pollack – some of which had starved to death before becoming bait to trap others.

Having surveyed the extent of the net and the wildlife (both living and dead) trapped in it, we returned to the boat to hatch a plan.

Once we’d decided on our approach and donned our scuba gear for the recovery dive, each group descended from the marker buoy placed earlier.

One group started in the middle, while the other two groups went to each end. Lift bags were then attached to the net and filled with air.

A diver attaches a lift bag to the ghost net.
Once a plan of action has been decided, divers attach lift bags along the length of the net. These are then filled with air to raise the net to the surface.

In a concerted effort from all three teams, the net was raised to the surface within 25 minutes using 12 lift bags. That was the easy part.

 

Time to cut loose

When back on the boat and out of our diving gear, we hauled the net in. As the net was brought aboard, the team cut any trapped wildlife free and returned them to the sea.

Many of the crabs and lobsters were not particularly happy and tried to pinch where they could – usually marked by some colourful language from us!

Two divers sit on the boat and cut trapped wildlife free from the ghost net.
Once the net is safely onboard, the trapped wildlife are carefully cut free and returned to the sea.

It took nearly three hours to work through the whole net, but by the end, we’d freed 115 animals – the majority of them still alive.

As for the net, that will be sent off to Slovenia to be recycled into Econyl yarn, which is used in new carpets, clothes, handbags and more. You probably already own some!

Watch the video below to see footage of the team in action.

How can you help?

Lost or abandoned fishing gear is problematic in our oceans. It’s often not malicious, simply a side effect of the harsh reality of fishing – but that still adds up to nearly 640,000 tonnes of gear lost in the sea every year.

Retrieving this ghost gear is a costly, tiring, dangerous and dirty job.

We are a registered UK charity and rely on donations to support this important work, so if you would like to help, please donate via our website and we’ll be able to continue protecting the UK’s aquatic wildlife.

For updates and info on future expeditions be sure to follow Ghost Fishing UK on Twitter.

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Jamie Vaughan
CIAM Senior Consultant
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