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'Ghost Fishing' divers remove old nets that kill fish

Ghost Fishing, a global network of highly skilled volunteer divers, is cleaning up the underwater mess in oceans caused by abandoned fishing nets.

By Raymund FlandezThe Chronicle of Philanthropy / October 7, 2013

A fisherman casts his net to catch fish on the Xin'an River in Jiande, Zhejiang Province, China, in July. A group of highly skilled volunteer professional divers scours the world's oceans to remove old fishing nets that can harm sea life.

Reuters/China Daily

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Fishing nets left behind in the sea twist and tangle, trapping fish and killing dolphins, sea lions, and other marine mammals.

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Ghost Fishing, a global network of highly skilled volunteer divers, is working hard to clean up the underwater mess caused by abandoned fishing nets.

“It is very important to show the world how big the problem is that we are talking about,” says Pascal van Erp, founder of Ghost Fishing, which is based in the Netherlands. “There are lots of nets out in the oceans. For years, nobody cared about it.”

Mr. van Erp leads a team of 30 to 40 volunteer divers in the North Sea.

“In the last three years, we have made 100 dives and removed 10 tons of fishing gear from the sea,” he says. The nets are then recycled into socks and other textiles.

The vagaries of nature and fundraising pose challenges for the volunteer groups that make up Ghost Fishing. Mr. van Erp says that because of the North Sea’s strong waves, he and his volunteers can do the deep dives only from May to September.

Each dive costs between $2,000 and $2,700. So far, the North Sea group’s only source of support has come from the Dutch government: $530,400 from a pool created by the sale of lottery tickets.

And the work is dangerous.

“It’s the most difficult type of diving I’ve ever done,” says Heather Hamza, one of roughly 50 volunteer divers who make up Los Angeles Underwater Explorers.

Divers have to deal with silt limiting their visibility and the possibility of getting snared in the old nets. Perhaps the most serious threat: If divers get tangled in the lift bags they use to carry old nets to the surface, they could rocket out of the water too fast and become very ill or even die.

That’s why her Ghost Fishing-affiliated organization, which dives off southern California coasts, solicits help only from divers with advanced, almost military-like training.

The pace of progress can be frustrating.

“Sometimes I feel like I’m cleaning the beach with a teaspoon,” Ms. Hamza says.

Her group is pushing to pass a state law that would require fishing vessels to report lost nets immediately.

“If you can find these nets right away, it’s so much easier to clean up,” she says.

This article originally appeared on the website of The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

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