Ghost Fishing UK Successful Scapa Cleanup
Environmental diving organisation Ghost Fishing UK (GFUK) spent last week training new volunteers, surveying and removing ghost gear from the wrecks of Scapa Flow, Orkney.
Working in partnership with World Animal Protection and marine scientists from Heriot-Watt University, the team successfully cleared the seven main shipwrecks of Scapa from ghost gear. Joining the effort were members of the local 'Big Scapa Clean Up' organisation, with whom GFUK have collaborated since 2015.
Scapa Flow is a natural harbour that was used as a safe anchorage during both world wars. The German High Seas fleet was interned in Scapa Flow during armistice negotiations following World War One. The ships were scuttled on the orders of Admiral Von Reuter after he learned of the agreements in the armistice, with which he disagreed. Today, seven main wrecks survive and have become some of the leading dive sites around the UK. The wrecks are of significant historic interest and are protected by legislation that prohibits the disturbance of the sites. Permission was granted to the GFUK team by Historic Scotland, highlighting the importance of the location to the UK's maritime heritage.
After four expeditions over four years, and with a rapidly expanding team of instructors and volunteer divers, the remains of the German fleet scuttled during the First World War are now safer and cleaner for both divers and marine life alike. This year's project is of particular significance, as 2019 marks the centenary of the scuttling when many divers are expected to visit Orkney.
Working from MV Halton and MV Valkyrie, skippered by Bob Anderson and Helen Hadley, the team of twenty-four divers and six crew spent six days surveying the wrecks, including the battleships Markgraf, Kronprinz Wilhelm and König, light cruisers Cöln and Karlsruhe, and destroyer SMS V-83. Huge piles of rope, twelve creels (lobster pots), scallop dredging nets, whelk traps and two discarded lorry batteries were all found on the iconic dive sites.
Along with the ghost gear recovery operation, five new ghost fishing divers and five new Ghost Fishing UK instructors were trained during the process. The GFUK course requires three days of learning followed by an assessment of basic safety skills, surveying of ghost gear and marine life, and how to safely use underwater lifting equipment bring ghost gear to the surface.
Ghost Fishing UK founder Dr Richard Walker, GUE instructor and associate professor of citizen science at Heriot-Watt University, said: 'The 2018 project has reached a significant milestone. We are delighted to announce that the scuttled WW1 high seas fleet are now clear of any actively fishing ghost gear. The health of the ocean has caught the public’s attention and the outlook often looks bleak. We hope that this is the first in a long line of positive improvements to the marine environment.'
Using specialist equipment including Halcyon dive bags, Paralenz diving cameras, and underwater notepads from Dive Proof, the teams were able to document the various species of marine life that were entangled in the ghost gear, which animals could be freed, and what gear was lifted to the surface. Data collection is especially important given the worldwide lack of documentation available as to the amount and the effect of ghost gear in the marine environment.
Dr Jo Porter from the International Centre for Island Technology, Heriot-Watt University, said: 'The data that have been collated over the last four years will allow fisheries scientists to build a model to allow understanding of the component of the fishery which is lost due to ghost fishing. No fishers want to lose their gear, so by removing lost items from the wrecks and the marine habitat we are resolving the issues of lost catch, damage to wildlife, safety to divers and also the long-term legacy of plastics getting into the food chain as the items start to break down. This has to be a win-win for all concerned.'
Citizen science is increasingly important to the preservation of the marine environment. The Global Ghost Gear Initiative launched an app earlier this year which allows regular divers to report any lost or abandoned ghost gear that they may encounter. A website devoted specifically to the wrecks of Scapa Flow – the 'Sea Clean Machine' – has also recently become available. All the information collected will feed into a wider record so that scientists can evaluate the problem, and analyse its impact.