A team of highly trained volunteer divers from Ghost Fishing UK travelled to Cornwall for their annual week-long expedition.
They dived the wrecks of SS Epsilon and The Carmarthen and found both to be massively covered in 'ghost gear', fishing equipment that continues to entangle and harm marine life once it has been discarded in the water.
After five days of diving, the team had successfully retrieved 540 kilograms of mixed net, line, and rope, a figure not including a further four weighty lobster pots.
GFUK Secretary Christine Grosart said: “Everyday that we’ve been out diving, we’ve pulled out a serious amount of net – big matted balls of ropes, monofilament, different types of plastic netting all balled up together. We’ve been finding nets of different vintages, there’s a lot of nasty plastics down there.”
This year Ghost Fishing UK decided upon Cornwall as the location for their extensive operation, while the previous four years have been based in the Orkney Isles.
Grosart said: “We’re aware that Cornwall has a huge fishing community. We thought that it would make sense if we came down here and tried to have a go at removing some of these nets and trying to meet the community and introduce ourselves to the local conservation organizations.
"There are lots of groups trying to do great things in Cornwall. We thought ‘if we’re going to come down for a week, let’s meet them, let them know what we do, and see if we can work together.”
The charity organised a networking event, which was attended by over fifty representatives from Cornish conservation and animal welfare charities, groups, and organisations.
One attendee - Dr James Barnett, who carries out the post-mortems on stranded marine mammals with British Divers Marine Life Rescue (BDMLR), discussed his experiences with the problem of ghost fishing;
“Most of the dolphins that we see interacting with nets are victims of by-catch. They’re caught in active fishing. Most seals are entangled - caught in ghost gear.
"The really gruesome cases we see in seals are usually entanglement cases. Seals love interacting with things, they play with them. We used to get entanglement cases [at Gweek Seal Sanctuary].
"We had a horrendous case when I was there, of an animal that was down at Mutton Cove near Godrevy, which had got caught in monofilament net. It had gone right the way round its abdomen. It was probably about a centimetre from getting into its abdominal cavity. It recovered. But around 5 percent of seals in the wild either show signs of entanglement, or are visibly entangled.”
The phenomenon known as “ghost fishing” is having a devastating impact of marine life and their habitats. When fishing equipment such as huge trawl nets, or vast gill nets are lost to the ocean, they continue to fish.
Creatures including diving birds, fish, seals, and cetaceans get caught in the ‘ghost gear’ and either drown or starve to death. Ghost Fishing UK have pulled dead cormorants, crabs, fish, and all manner of shellfish and mollusks from the nets that they retrieve.
Nigel Hodge, boat skipper of Seawatch 1, fisherman, and diver knows the Cornish waters like the back of his hand. With over thirty years’ experience, Ghost Fishing UK were keen to charter Seawatch 1 for some of their diving trips.
Ghost Fishing UK are not an anti-fishing organisation, and are keen to work with the fishing community on bettering the problem.
Nigel said: “Nets have become cheaper, which means they are now becoming more disposable. 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 fisherman.”
Over the coming years, Ghost Fishing UK will be focusing more on working with the fishing industry. Grosart said: “The interactions that we’ve had with the fishing community whilst we’ve been down here have been very positive. They’re just as frustrated about the ghost gear problem as we are. They don’t want to lose this stuff. And fishing gear is now unfortunately made of plastic.”
Fisherman are able to provide masses of information to organisations such as Ghost Fishing UK, which could help them to better locate lost gear, retrieve it, and inevitably get it back to the fisherman. Dr Barnett notes;
“As far as by-catch and entanglement is concerned, fisherman don’t want to do it. It’s something that unfortunately is a side-effect of what they do. They’re not deliberately going out there to try and affect the welfare of these animals.
At a by-catch workshop in London, back in May, there were quite a lot of fisherman from down here actively involved in that meeting, looking at modes of mitigating its by-catch. They are welfare orientated people. They see it as a big issue.”
Entangled animals serve as bait for more marine animals, and the cycle continues. Further to that, almost all fishing rope, net, and line are now made from synthetic plastic fibers. When left in the ocean, much like plastic bottles or straws, they break down with the wave motion, turning to nurdles.
Nurdles are tiny pieces of microplastic, and are ingested by sea creatures, causing them to become malnourished. When predators eat these creatures, they too ingest the plastics. Plastic has now been found in humans, Arctic ice, and supermarket salt.
A key part of the work done by GFUK revolves around understanding what marine life, and how much marine life is snared, trapped, or suffocated by ghost gear. The statistics gathered by GFUK on their dives around the UK is vital toward understanding the magnitude of the problem.
The data that they collect from their survey and recovery dives is shared with citizen science organization Sea Search. Sea Search trained the divers from Ghost Fishing UK in how to identify the flora and fauna that they find.
Ghost gear is both a hazard to human life, marine life, and the environment – and with hundreds of thousands of tons of it in the oceans, it can live in waters for up to an estimated 600 years, snagging on rocks, ships wrecks, and even animals.
At least 46 percent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is from discarded fishing nets (2018, Ocean Cleanup), and The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) conservatively estimate that some 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear are left in our oceans each year.
Ghost Fishing was set up to try to remove this lost equipment from the marine environment. It is a challenging and difficult task, and one only for highly trained divers. With an exciting year ahead of them, Ghost Fishing UK are keen to show the importance of what they do, and to get as many people involved as they can.
Dr Barnett, vet and volunteer with GFUK, said: “There are more people actively involved than there ever were, particularly around [Cornwall]. British Divers down here is a major force in animal welfare. Now there’s a massive effort from individuals and volunteers getting involved.”
This article is based on a press release from Ghost Fishing UK.
Image: © Mark Rose - Ghost Fishing UK. Flickr.