Dive Team Remove Abandoned Fishing Gear From HMS Southwold
A large fishing net has been removed from the wreck of the HMS Southwold, one of the deep wrecks overseen by the Underwater Cultural Heritage Unit (UCHU) of Heritage Malta. The net had been trapped on the bow section of the Second World War wreck, which is separated from its stern section by approximately 300m.
HMS Southwold was a British Type II Hunt-class destroyer which served briefly in the Mediterranean Fleet before striking a mine while towing the stricken oil tanker Breconshire to port after it was severely damaged during a sustained attack by the Italian Navy and German Luftwaffe. On 24 March 1942, the Southwold split in two and sank to a depth of 65m approximately 1.5miles (2.4km) from Marsaskala Bay, Malta. One officer and four crewmen were killed in the explosion.
The Southwold was brought under the protection on Malta's UCHU in 2019, together with 11 other ships and aircraft lost during the First and Second World Wars. UCHU works in partnership with the local ATLAM dive club to maintain the dive sites and prevent damage to both the wrecks and the marine life which now live near them. The net was raised by a team of six divers who were able to raise the net during a single dive.
The clearing of the Southwold Bow dive site is part of a larger net removal project currently being undertaken by the UCHU at various Heritage Malta underwater sites. As marine pollution is on the rise globally, the removal of ghost gear is 'an integral part of protecting the marine environment,' according to a UCHU spokesperson.
The presence of ghost gear – abandoned fishing nets, traps, pots and lines – in the world’s oceans is increasing, with an estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear left in the oceans every year. The dangers of ghost gear lie in its durability, often floating on ocean currents and indiscriminately 'ghost fishing' its way across the sea, capturing a large number of species that die from starvation or suffocation within its nets.
The Mediterranean and Malta are not exempt from this, and wrecks – of which there are many in the Mediterranean, especially around the Maltese islands which have been used as strategic military throughout the centuries – are particularly vulnerable to the problem of ghost gear. Wrecks act as artificial reefs and shelters, attracting a wide variety of marine flora and fauna, but the large size and jagged edges of the wrecks often capture drifting ghost nets and lines.
Apart from the threat to marine life and damage to the wreck, ghost gear also poses a significant entanglement hazard to divers, especially at deeper sites with lower levels of light penetration.
For more on the work of Malta's Underwater Cultural Heritage unit and its virtual museum, visit www.heritagemalta.org/underwater-cultural-heritage-unit