Ghost gear: meet the heroes cleaning up our ocean’s frontline

Photo credit Ghostnetbusters ALDFG Recovery

With our oceans quickly filling up with plastic and fish stocks dwindling, it’s time to start talking about the massive whale in the room: ghost gear. An enormous environmental problem caused by commercial fishing and fuelled by our ever-growing appetite for seafood. Kristy Westlake talks to some of the heroes on the ocean’s frontline and finds out how we can all start helping.

With only his face and hands poking out from his recycled Fourth Element wetsuit, complete with salt-crusted eyebrows and the circle indent of a snorkel mask still pressed into his skin, Luke Bullus helps his team haul out another discarded death trap. A 200m, one-tonne trawl net, designed to trap and kill sea animals destined for your plate. 

Photo credit: Fathoms Free divers recovering net from Torbay

Luke has been volunteering as a ghost gear retrieval diver for Sea Shepherd’s ‘UK Ghost Gear’ campaign since 2018, and Fathoms Free’s ‘Dive Against Debris‘ since 2014. Both are volunteer-run marine conservation groups who refuse to stand by and watch as our oceans are turned into uninhabitable dumping grounds.

Luke got involved in retrieving the ghost gear that haunts our coastlines because he could. He had the skills, the expertise, and most importantly – a willingness to undertake sometimes dangerous undersea work to defend our oceans.

The ghost gear problem

Plaguing all twelve thousand miles of our British coastline, ghost gear is an especially serious problem in Cornwall and Scotland, due to the amount of fishing in those areas. It’s what results from fishing equipment being accidentally lost, or deliberately abandoned to avoid hefty recycling fees ashore. 

These nets, although seemingly harmless, are quite the opposite, and could be compared to the bolt-guns used on cattle, sheep and pigs in the meat industry. These fire a metal bolt into the brain of the animal, causing it to lose consciousness immediately. But with fishing nets the effects aren’t immediate. 

Animals such as dolphins, whales and turtles – the kind that don’t have a profitable place on our supermarket shelves – get caught along with all the tuna, mackerel, and haddock. They’re strangled, suffocated and crushed inside these huge nets, and because there’s no demand for them they’re thrown back, dead, from whence they came. 

An estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enter the ocean every year, equivalent in weight to more than 50,000 double-decker buses. In certain areas, ghost gear constitutes up to 85% of the rubbish found on the seafloor, seamounts and ocean ridges, according to Greenpeace. Not only does this lingering waste trap wild creatures, causing them to starve and drown – it also damages reefs, releases microplastics and upsets the natural ecosystem on which our entire climate depends.

When Luke first started diving in British waters he was struck not only by the abundance of fish, but by the amount of discarded fishing gear lying around. 

“Other divers had come to accept that the lobster pots, gill nets, lines and ropes attached to reefs, and embedded into the sea floor were a part of the diving here in the UK,” he says. “It was as though these items were just accepted as part of the scenery.”

Many years ago these items would have been made of natural, biodegradable materials, but the commercial fishing industry today uses equipment made almost entirely from nylon. A material that will take several decades to degrade naturally, meaning these nets are going to trap and kill wildlife long after the fishermen have slung their hooks. 

Nylon can be recycled infinitely without any degradation in quality, and one enterprise benefitting from the endless possibilities of this material is Econyl. By recycling, recreating, and remoulding nylon from discarded fishing nets into a regenerated nylon thread, Econyl create a closed-loop material that is used by a plethora of environmentally conscious brands.

But if nylon is such a useful and hardy material, why does the fishing industry continue to discard it?

The first reason is that the industry faces hefty charges to recycle old gear on land. And secondly, because the gear is ridiculously cheap to buy in the first place. With one net costing a mere one to two hundred pounds, there’s not much incentive for an exhausted crew of fishermen to retrieve an old net that’s become caught on a rock.

There’s no denying that working out at sea is unpredictable and challenging – lines and nets are bound to get tangled up and caught on things. But with no incentive to do the right thing, and with no processes in place to hold the fishing industry accountable for its own waste, it’s a solid given that dumping of gear will continue. 

According to a 2019 Greenpeace report:

“… poor regulation and slow political progress in creating ocean sanctuaries that are off-limits to industrial fishing allow this problem to exist and persist. Alongside a lack of proactive measures to address the problem at source, clean-up is costly, complex, and sometimes damaging, while there is limited ownership of the problem and not enough incentive to fish in smarter ways to avoid losing gear.”

Empowering the fishing industry to do the right thing

Photo credit: Odyssey Innovation

At present, the vast majority of the ghost gear recovered from around our coastline is recycled, thanks to Odyssey Innovation‘s Net Regeneration Scheme. This is the only scheme in the UK that offers free net recycling solutions for polyethylene trawl, nylon and other plastic generated and recovered by the fishing industry. With funding from the Welsh Government, Odyssey Innovation’s multi-award-winning and fully traceable scheme is now widely recognised in most harbours, from Dover in Kent to Flint in Wales, and is now expanding into Scotland. 

Odyssey Innovation’s founder Rob Thompson says: 

“We’re striving to empower the fishing industry by providing the resources they need to become the best possible custodians of the sea. The greatest obstacle we face right now is outreach, and letting more people know about our Net Regeneration Scheme.”

Not only does empowering the fishing industry to recycle old nets reduce the amount of ghost gear, but the whole process of closed-loop recycling supports the circular economy. An approach to business that sees less waste and therefore less environmental damage.

To date, Odyssey Innovation has removed 200 tonnes of marine plastic from the ocean and reintroduced it back into the circular economy via its production of recycled ocean-plastic kayaks. These kayaks are then used in their Global ‘Paddle for Plastic’ campaign to continue the fight against ghost gear.

You’d think that with the climate emergency looming ever larger and COP26 still a very recent memory, BoJo and Co. would start putting our money where their mouths are. We need policies to encourage better practices within an industry whose operations largely slip through the net. But sadly, what we’re seeing is that those with limited means to help are doing most of the helping.

Fathoms Free volunteers at work in Mevagissey

The heroes on the ocean’s frontline

Non-profit organisations like Sea Shepherd and Fathoms Free rely heavily on the skills, expertise, and dedication of volunteers to get these waste materials out of the ocean. Highly experienced volunteer divers, like Luke, are deployed to a reported ghost gear site and retrieve the abandoned gear using lift bags. These are attached and then inflated to lift the nets to the surface carefully so that the crew can bring them ashore. 

“We cut large nets into manageable lumps before lifting them to the surface, making it easier to pull them onto the boat and then take ashore,” Luke explains.

Grace Jones from Cornwall’s Ghostnetbusters community group explains that sometimes gear gets trapped between rocks or embedded into the cliff face. This then requires extra help from abseilers and rock climbers to assist with the retrieval.

“Ghost gear retrieval is a difficult job,” she tells me. “Not only is it time-consuming and costly, because the recycling points are few and far between. But we pay for fuel and the upkeep of the vehicles we use out of our own pockets. And on top of that, we’re made to pay for a license to transport rubbish – which is so unnecessary and detrimental to our efforts.”

Retrieving gear designed to trap and kill sea animals is a hazardous task, since the same could easily happen to a tangled-up scuba diver. It’s also costly and time-consuming for the heroes taking action to resolve the problem.

Fathoms Free volunteers cutting live crabs caught in a ghost net recovered from Falmouth. Credit: Fathoms Free

The need for global standards

Unlike many other divers, Luke never saw the discarded fishing gear as part of the underwater scenery. It was merely litter: ugly, damaging, and in need of cleaning up. And he wasn’t alone in his views. There are many grassroots organisations, community groups and independent businesses cropping up in Cornwall and all over the country actively working together to defend our ocean and the wildlife within it. 

As a global problem, ghost gear will need a collective approach. There are no universal standards for the fishing industry, meaning what happens in UK waters could vary significantly from fishing practices elsewhere.

“We need the fishing industry to operate under a set of standards,” Luke says. So we need governments and organisations, like the EU and UN, to work together to implement and enforce better fishing practices on a global scale.” 

How can you help?

The first thing to do is start talking about the issue. There’s a humongous whale in the room, and hardly anyone has even noticed, let alone heard of ghost gear.