Ghost Fishing UK's Initiative to Remove and Recyle Discarded Fishing Nets

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Lost and discarded fishing nets are a hazard to marine wildlife (Christine Grosart / Ghost Fishing UK)

'Ghost gear' and 'ghost fishing' are becoming increasingly recognised marine problems, a direct result of discarded fishing nets and other paraphernalia that present entanglement and entrapment hazards to marine wildlife.

According to a joint report by the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation) and UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme), an estimated 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets are left in our oceans each year, accounting for one-tenth of all marine litter. These nets, sometimes called 'ghost nets', can often be found on and around shipwrecks.

The Ghost Fishing Foundation was started in 2009 in the Netherlands by a team of local divers, after they noticed the growing problem of ghost gear while diving wrecks in the Dutch North Sea. Since then, the foundation has grown into a global organisation, with projects in The Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Croatia, Malta, Greece, the United Kingdom and the United States.

Collaborations with other organisations such as the Healthy Seas Initiative, World Animal Protection and Greenpeace form the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), spreading the word about the problem and raising awareness through social media.

In 2015, a team of dedicated volunteer divers came together to tackle the problem in Scapa Flow, Orkney (Scotland), forming the UK branch of the Ghost Fishing Foundation. This year, they decided to venture further afield to remove lost or abandoned nets from popular shipwrecks off the coast of Plymouth.

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Ghost Fishing UK chairman Richard Walker explains: 'Ghost Fishing is the term used for lost fishing nets and pots that continue to catch marine life. When marine life is caught by ghost fishing nets it cannot be landed and dies in the lost gear, acting as bait for larger animals which in turn become trapped.'

The clean-up action in Plymouth was sponsored by the Healthy Seas initiative, under their project 'A Journey from Waste To Wear', an international drive to recover abandoned fishing nets for the purpose of creating healthier seas and recycling marine litter into textile products. The recovered fishing nets are transformed into Econyl yarn, a high-quality raw material which is utilised as a sustainable textile by carpet manufacturers such as Milliken, who are also sponsoring the project.

'We are extremely proud to have Milliken on board', said Veronika Mikos, project coordinator of Healthy Seas. 'Thanks to the support of partners such as Milliken, the initiative has the possibility to grow and reach its goals such as raising awareness about the problem of marine litter and possible solutions.'

Ghost Fishing UK secretary and team diver Christine Grosart said: 'Ghost gear doesn’t benefit anyone. It costs fishermen significant money whenever they lose nets and it is rarely a deliberate act. We want to work with the fishermen to find out where they lost their nets or pots so that we can retrieve them before they cause further harm to wildlife. We would also like scuba divers to contact us whenever they spot lost nets or pots on the wrecks or reefs where they dive. With this information we can set up an experienced team to go and retrieve them. We are expanding and our goal is to train more divers to work safely in a fairly risky environment to remove more ghost gear.'

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On Saturday, 6 August, members of the Ghost Fishing UK team were joined by members of Healthy Seas, Milliken and Aquafil – the company responsible for recycling the recovered material – to free lost nets from the wreck of the James Eagan Layne, one of the UK’s most popular wreck dives. Ghost Fishing CEO/Founder, Pascal Van Erp, who is also diving coordinator of Healthy Seas, made the journey from the Netherlands to the UK to assist with the underwater clean-up. 

A survey of the wreck a week earlier had found a large monofilament net on the stern and a mass of nylon net on the bow. The team were able to release some of the spider and edible crabs that had been hopelessly entangled at the time, returning a week later to check the nets and begin the clean-up. 'We hoped they would not return to the nets and luckily they had stayed well away, to enable us to cut away the netting from the wreckage, which was also beginning to break it up in places and send it to the surface.' said Ms. Grosart.

The divers worked in poor visibility and as close teams, with a spotter/camera diver as safety cover in case anyone was in danger of entanglement. Four dives were conducted and over 100kg of ghost gear was succesfully removed from the wreck and returned to Plymouth Fisheries, who had granted the team permission to use their dockyard and crane.

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The recovered fishing nets will be transformed and regenerated into Econyl yarn, to demonstrate that the partners are not only cleaning up the seas, but also providing a showcase that recycled waste itself can be a valuable raw material. Alison Kitchingman, Milliken Carpet's director of marketing and design, and marketing communications manager Kate Collier joined the team of divers in Plymouth to show their support and share the experience. 

'Being out on the boat with the team was such a fantastic experience and one I was proud to be a part of,' said Collier. 'Thank you for letting us have the opportunity!' 

The significance of the project for Milliken was highlighted by Kitchingman: 'I'd like to convey our thanks to the entire team; for their professionalism, enthusiasm and conviction. We feel very proud to have been able to support this initiative: the first UK Healthy Seas' diving action.'

'The Healthy Seas initiative is really exciting because it brings together a whole range of stakeholders and because it is solution based,' said Veronika Mikos. 'According to a new report, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the seas and oceans than fish. We have to work hard against it, not to let it happen. Today again, we made an important step in that direction.'

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The Ghost Fishing team (from L-R): Veronika Mikos, Fred Nunn, Ben Vowles, Pascal van Erp, Douglas Allen, Jayme Fraioli-Harper, John Thixton, Chris Hawes, Christine Grosart, Kate Collier


Ghost Fishing UK would like to thank Aquanauts Dive Centre, Healthy Seas, Milliken and Aquafil, as well as the continuing support and advice from the Marine Management Organisation, for a successful trip. If you're part of a marine conservation project and you'd like to get in touch, please drop us a line at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.





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