Ghost Fishing UK's Fourth Annual Scapa Flow Cleanup

ghost fishing scapa title

Photo: Bob Anderson

Working with World Animal Protection (WAP) and Heriot-Watt University, Ghost Fishing UK are in Orkney this week for their fourth and most ambitious ghost gear cleanup operation in the area so far. 

A team of 30 scuba divers are exploring the depths of Scapa Flow, on the hunt for discarded, lost or abandoned fishing equipment – known as 'ghost gear'. Between Sunday 30 September and Friday 05 October, Ghost Fishing UK will be conducting a thorough clean of the Scapa Flow bed, ahead of next years’ centenary of the scuttling of the German Fleet during the First World War.

Operations during the previous three years have been extremely successful, with the team locating and surfacing several tonnes of ghost gear. The discarded fishing equipment is subsequently sent away for recycling.

A full training programme for new volunteers is being conducted throughout the week, while surveys are conducted on all of the ghost gear that is discovered, not just of the gear itself, but also what has been trapped within it. There is a global lack of documented evidence regarding the extent to which the presence of ghost gear in the ocean affects wildlife and marine habitats. The work being done around Orkney is therefore vital to conservation efforts. 

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Photo: Bob Anderson

The world's attention has been recently been focussed on the problems of plastic pollution, especially through last year's BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. A new BBC documentary Drowning in Plastic, broadcast on 1 October highlighted the horrific impact that plastic - including ghost gear - is both polluting our oceans and having a devastating impact on marine life and habitats. What is little known, however, is the scale of the problem that ghost gear actually causes. It is estimated that at least 46 per cent of the plastic found in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, for example, is from discarded fishing nets.

Ghost Fishing was set up to try to remove this lost equipment from the marine environment. It is a challenging and difficult task, involving specialist techniques and technical diving. Ghost Gear is typically entangled in reefs and wrecks, and its removal can be complicated. This involves a high degree of teamwork, coordination and discipline.

The problem of ghost gear has grown within the public eye over the last five years. It is not unusual that nets, traps, lines and other equipment is lost at sea. It is often the case that this is not a deliberate or careless act by the fishing industry, but simply the reality of fishing in a harsh environment.

ghost fishing scapa 1000

Photo: Bob Anderson

The United Nations estimate that 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear is lost in our oceans every year, killing and maiming marine life - from small fish and crustaceans to turtles, seals and whales. It could take as long as 600 years for these nets to break down in the water, at which point they turn into the tiny particles known as microplastics, the astronomical dangers of which we are only just coming to understand.

It’s wonderful that we’re all now conscious of using plastic straws and single-use plastic – but what about the other half of the plastic pollution in the ocean. Modern fishing equipment is specifically designed to last in the sea – so it’s not going anywhere unless action is taken now.

Ghost Fishing UK needs public support in order to keep operating. For more information about their work, volunteer training program, and how everyday divers can catalogue and report abandoned fishing gear to the organisation, visit the website at , or find them on their Facebook page and YouTube channel.




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