Fathoms Free Secures MMO Licensing

After eight months of working closely with the Marine Management Organisation, consultations with several other organisations and trialling new systems, Fathoms Free are delighted to announce we have obtained the MMO licences required by law for the underwater retrieval of lost fishing gear in England. We are proud to be the first organisation to receive these licences, which cover 13 sites in the SW.

This is great news for the protection of our seas and for the GGGI community as it helps to clarify the licencing issue of ghost gear recovery. In the hope that our experience will be of use to other organisations planning ghost gear removal work in the UK I have set out below an outline of our experience.

In response to our initial enquiry we received the following clarification from the MMO:

Re: Retrieval of lost fishing gear

Thank you for your enquiry dated 15 November 2016, regarding the above matter. Under section 66(1)(8) of The Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009 it is a licensable activity; To use a vehicle, vessel marine structure or floating container to remove any substance or object from the sea bed within the UK marine licensing area.

Having considered the information provided the MMO can advise that the following activities may require a marine licence; 1) to remove abandoned, lost and discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) from the marine environment by means of retrieval dives and beach clean ups.

However, to provide a guide for divers, the MMO have set out the types of regular diving related activities that do and do not require a marine licence. Lifting bags. Lifting bags of less than 100kg total lifting capacity for the object may be used without a marine licence to recover items that have been on the seabed for less than 12 months, such as shot weights, datums, lost diving equipment etc.

Marine litter picks. The collection of contemporaneous marine litter using lifting bags or by hand (to a weight limit <100kg) does not require a marine licence.

As you can see with the exemption of ghost gear has been down for no longer than a year the guidance states that an MMO licence is needed for ghost gear. We also had a lot of discussion around what classes as marine litter as we do a lot of marine litter picks. It was decided that ghost gear has different properties to marine litter due to the capability of entanglement. Therefore they have different properties when it comes to removal from wreck sites, as marine litter can be simply picked up with little disruption to the wreck, whereas ghost gear involves greater interaction with the wreck in order to untangle it. This poses a potential threat of disturbance leading to accelerated decay in historic wreck sites. In addition, there is a concern about ghost gear that has become so embedded within a wreck or encrusted with marine life that it is now forming part of the marine habitat, disturbance to this could have a greater negative impact than leaving it in some cases. An example of such habitat is a lump of discarded ghost gear rope in Lanzarote which houses a local population of seahorses. If there was a rare or protected species upon a site it is likely this information would not be in the public domain in order to protect the species. This could result in a situation where a ghost gear removal inadvertently has devastating impact on a protected species or habitat. The only way to ensure this does not happen is through the consultation process which forms part of the MMO licence application.

There are further reasons removing objects from wrecks requires the MMO’s approval. Some wreck sites may be of historic interest and removals could lead to disturbance of artefacts of agrological importance, while others are classed as war graves and have additional protection. Without licencing and consequent spot checks it would be difficult to ensure that divers are not also bringing back illegal souvenirs, and are complying with their methodology approved by the MMO. Another reason for consultation is due to a lot of our coast being designated as a Ministry Of Defence area. They need to be aware of proposed removal activities as they may be panning manoeuvres in the area. It is possible that some wreck sites may contain munitions which could be disturbed whilst trying to free up ghost gear. Therefore, taking all of the above into consideration it was decided that ghost gear should not be classed as marine litter and a MMO licence would be needed.

Although the process of applying for a license and obtaining approval of the activity, method statement and vetting organisation’s credentials was lengthy, it was completely worth it to ensure our work has the greatest environmental benefit. It has been great working alongside the MMO who were very approachable and have a wealth of relevant knowledge. It was very useful highlighting the issue of ghost gear retrieval to the MMO and its consultees and establishing the most appropriate application procedure. We also had the opportunity to trial one of their new application processes and provide feedback tailored towards ghost gear removals which was then incorporated in the new system. It has also been valuable in terms of really getting us to think very carefully about our methodology and best practice in recovery work and build our best practice guidelines through consultation with the MMO and their partners.

The licenses will enable Fathoms Free to conduct ghost gear retrieval work as set out in our 2-year project approved by GGGI. In anyone has any further question about our experience with the MMO license application, or wishes to support our work, please do not hesitate to get in touch through our website – www.fathomsfree.org.