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Marine / Conservationists and fishermen working in harmony: ‘Everyone’s a winner’

Photo: Ghost Fishing UK/Rich Walker

A NATIONAL charity has nearly completed its first visit to the isles to gather up ‘ghost gear’ – fishing gear that has been abandoned, lost or discarded in the water.

Ghost Fishing UK was founded in 2015 and is run entirely by volunteers who dedicate their time to removing gear from the sea.

As well as contributing to plastic pollution, discarded nets and creels can trap fish and other animals on the sea floor, depleting stocks.

The charity is currently visiting Shetland for a week with 12 voluntary divers.

It is using MV Valhalla to take divers offshore to look for gear reported by local fishermen.

The divers have already found various creels, nets and ropes.

Photo: Ghost Fishing UK/Rich Walker

Trustee and secretary Christine Grosart explained what the charity is all about on Wednesday, when their offshore dives had to be called off due to poor weather.

“We do it for the love, basically,” she told Shetland News. “We’re scuba divers who like to use our scuba diving skills to clean up the ocean.

“We work with the fishing community to find out where stuff has been lost… so that we can go and target specific areas and bring it back to shore.”

Once gathered, the divers bring recovered material back to shore to be cleaned – everything is then either recycled or returned to the local fishing industry.

Whilst one of the charity’s first dives took place in Orkney, it has expanded all over the UK and this is its first time in Shetland.

Grosart explained how the trip came about: “Some fishermen contacted us, concerned about a gill net problem in Shetland, so we thought ‘okay, we’ll go up there and see what’s happening and see if we can help’.”

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One of the first things the divers noticed was the amazing visibility in Shetland’s waters.

Grosart said: “Our divers came up and were like ‘wow, it’s blue, it’s clear, we’ve got 20 to 30 meters visibility’.

“They were gobsmacked, Orkney was a little bit green, a little bit bitty…down south in Cornwall, it can be nice but not every day.

“Up here, we’re blown away by the environment, it’s absolutely stunning.”

The isles have also presented the divers with distinct challenges from the rest of the country – and it’s not just the rapidly changing weather.

“Initially [information came] from diver reports, so around the UK we tend to target shipwrecks, which is where the stuff gets caught,” Grosart said.

“Everyone knows where the wrecks are, so it’s easy to for us to find.

“Divers will report what they’ve seen… obviously Shetland isn’t dived that much, it’s only during the summer months and specific sites.”

Because of this, the charity is “more dependent” on reports from Shetland fishing vessels.

Grosart said the gear in Shetland is “not necessarily wrapped up on wrecks, they could be anywhere, so locating them is really difficult”.

She continued: “The way [the fishermen] are finding them, is they’re pulling them in in their own trawls.”

Ghost Fishing UK says its work across the country sees conservationists and industry on the same page – although the Shetland sector has worked in tandem for many years.

“When we first started out, it was a scary place to go,” Grosart admitted.

“When you’re a conservation outfit, there is an assumption that you’re going to be anti-fishing and you’re all gonna be vegans and you don’t eat fish and you’re not gonna play nicely with them.

“We’ve never had that approach – we’re divers, we like eating fish.

“We also like to look after the marine environment that we enjoy, the same as the fishermen want to look after the environment that’s their livelihood, so we’re all on the same page really.”

There is one thing the two groups firmly agree on: the problems with gill nets.

“Our plan at the end of this week is try and put a case together with the fishing community [on gill netting], which I don’t believe has been done,” said Grosart.

“I don’t believe a conservation outfit has been going to authorities on the same page, singing the same tune, complaining about the same thing [as fishermen before]…that’s really powerful if we can do that.”

Photo: Ghost Fishing UK/Rich Walker

She described the Shetland fishing community as being “extremely accommodating”, with one local man even taking out Grosart on his creel boat to learn what goes on.

“We don’t see any advantage in doing what we do if we’re working against the fishermen,” she continued.

“We need to know where they’ve lost their gear, they want their gear back.

“They’re helping us, we can’t recycle creels so we really want to give them back to them.”

Daniel Lawson, executive officer at Shetland Fishermen’s Association, said: “Fishermen in Shetland will welcome any help to keep Shetland’s seas as pristine as possible, and it’s encouraging to see this effort being well supported by the wider community as well.

“Unfortunately, accidents happen, and fishing gear is sometimes lost – often at great expense to local vessels.

“So, to see that gear being safely retrieved and returned to fishermen as part of this partnership is a job well done by all involved.”

The Shetland branch of the UHI has been getting involved throughout the week too.

“The university have come down to have a look because they’re interested in the growth on the ropes,” said Grosart.

“The great thing about working with the fishermen, is that they will tell us when they were lost, so we’ve got a timeline for how long those have been in the water… they’re really interested in that bit of science.

“Everyone’s a winner here: the fishermen get their stuff back, we get the stuff out of the sea, and the university get to do some science as well… it’s been really productive so far.”

She also added that the voluntary response from the local community to help wash and sort the gear has been “amazing”.

“We just put a shout out for some help for volunteers to come along and roll their sleeves up and get hold of a pressure washer and they loved it.

“That’s been brilliant, they just want to be involved and want to be engaged… there’s been a lot of interest.”

Today (Thursday) is the charity’s penultimate day in Shetland and the team will be hosting an event at the museum, which is already sold out.

“We’ve invited anybody who’s interested in what we do, so we’ve got a mix of wildlife fanatics, divers, locals, people who’ve helped us like DFDS haulage,” Grosart said.

“We’ve got an evening of talks, a few snacks and drinks and then we’re going to get our heads together and actually meet in one place, have a good chinwag and see what we can do.”

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