GGGI PROJECT: Ghost Fishing UK Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands

© Christine Grosart / Ghost Fishing UK

© Christine Grosart / Ghost Fishing UK

After four expeditions over four years, Ghost Fishing UK, with a rapidly expanding team of instructors and trained volunteer divers, has declared that the remnants of the WWI German scuttled fleet in Scapa Flow are now safer and cleaner for marine life and the many divers expected to flock to the Orkney for the centenary of the scuttling of the German High Seas Fleet after World War One. The project has been funded by World Animal Protection and the Fat Face Foundation, who, as part of the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI) are working to address the issue on an international scale.

Known as ‘ghost gear’, lost and abandoned fishing equipment, including ropes, nets and pots, is a huge threat to the marine environment. Built of incredibly durable material, some ghost gear can take up to 600 years to break down into micro-plastics, and will continue catching and killing animals before they do so. The problem is vast, with an estimated 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear entering the ocean every year.

In 2018, Ghost Fishing UK was able to charter an additional vessel for the first time, M/V Sunrise, to train new volunteers. Volunteers were invited from across the UK in with the aim of creating units of trained divers across a variety of locations who can carry out underwater clean-up operations. The volunteers have been trained to safely remove ghost gear, identify marine wildlife they find trapped in the gear, and document their work.

The second vessel was funded by the Fat Face Foundation, the charitable arm of international clothing brand Fat Face. Fat Face joined the GGGI in 2018 and are lending their profile to raise awareness of the issue. They are doing this through the sales of swimwear made from recycled fishing nets, an innovative answer to the question of what happens to the ghost gear that is retrieved by groups like Ghost Fishing UK. The team on M/V Halton focused on the deeper wrecks found in Scapa Flow. These ships lie up to 45m below the surface. Complex dives at these depths require advanced skills and teamwork to be conducted safely. The team are all trained in the use of mixed gasses to reduce the effects of nitrogen narcosis and to lower the risk of decompression sickness, commonly known as “the bends.”

Both teams were guided in their efforts by the “Big Scapa Cleanup” project. The SeaCleanMachine reporting App is now fully active and allows for any diver visiting the ship wrecks of Scapa Flow, Orkney to use interactive maps to record the presence of marine litter or Ghost Fishing gear which requires removal. The data captured allowed the recovery to be highly focused and efficient, important when a project has a limited time frame.

Using specialist equipment including Halcyon lift bags, Paralenz diving cameras, and underwater notepads from Dive Proof, the teams were able to document the marine life found entangled in ghost gear, what was freed, and what was lifted to the surface. The haul of ghost gear collected by Ghost Fishing UK during the 2018 project included creels donated to Sea Life Centres, and local fishermen, rope to Afrayed Knot, and nets that were sent for recycling into Econyl and used in a variety of products.

“Using amateur divers to remove ghost fishing gear is a unique approach to the problem.” Said Rich Walker, Chairman of Ghost Fishing UK. “Divers are the only group of people that are able to see what happens beneath the surface of our seas, yet the effects of ghost fishing gear affect marine animals, the fishing industry and ultimately society as a whole. If divers do not remove this ghost gear, then I’m worry that nobody else has the information or capabilities to remove it from the seas.”

The wrecks of Scapa Flow are of great significant historic interest and are specifically protected by legislation that prohibits tampering or disturbing of the sites. Permission was specifically granted by Historic Environment Scotland for Ghost Fishing UK to clear the wrecks of old abandoned, lost or discarded fishing equipment, and litter.

The permissions granted by Historic Scotland highlight the value held in our maritime heritage. The four successfully ran operations truly reflect the growing importance of citizen science, and the democratic weight that volunteer programmes bring to the wider marine environment, be that ecological, historical or cultural.

Dr Jo Porter, of the International Centre for Island Technology, Heriot Watt University (Orkney Campus), 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."

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