Simon de Bruxelles reports 4th Jan 2018: Divers tackle deadly scourge of fishing litter

A volunteer army of divers has spent the past 12 years clearing tonnes of abandoned fishing gear and other debris from the seabed off Pembrokeshire, west Wales.

The amateur divers call themselves Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners (Narc) and their haul has included dozens of lost fishing nets, hundreds of crab and lobster pots, miles of fishing line and 10,000 lead weights.

The menace of this “ghost gear” is only now becoming widely known, in part because of the BBC documentary series Blue Planet II. Lost nets can drift for years, killing fish and marine mammals before being broken down into microscopic filaments that may end up in the food chain.

The scuba-diving litter pickers have also salvaged a mountain of material that was fly-tipped off one of Britain’s wildest and most beautiful coastlines. They have brought up lawnmowers, mobile phones, chairs, a kitchen sink and even a car.

Narc was founded by Dave Kennard, 50, a plumber and amateur diver. The rubbish they raise is carefully sorted and recycled. Objects like the fishing nets and lost shellfish pots are returned to their owners if known.

Mr Kennard said: “We have good relations with the local fishermen and they tell us when they lose pots. They may have a string of up to 40 worth £50 to £80 each so there’s a lot of money at stake.”

The divers often recover tangled mats of fishing line laced with weights and hooks from popular angling spots such as Stackpole Quay and Martins Haven. Last month John O’Connor, chairman of the Welsh Federation of Sea Anglers, won an international environmental award from the charity World Animal Protection for a campaign to make anglers aware of the issue. In conjunction with Narc, he produced leaflets identifying undersea hazards and set up recycling bins for unwanted gear.

Mr O’Connor, a vet, drew up a set of “tackle tips” aimed at sea anglers who fish from rocks and jetties. He said: “If anglers fished responsibly and more correctly, they wouldn’t lose so much tackle. It is quite a problem if it’s a rocky area, particularly with summertime visitors. The local anglers already know where the problems are. The divers tell me there are areas out there where there is just a wall of line and tackle.”

He encourages anglers to use bio-degradable fishing line, hooks that will straighten to minimise losses if they get snagged and fishing at high water.

Chiara Vitali, campaigns manager for World Animal Protection, said: “Ghost gear has been an issue since fishing gear started being manufactured out of plastic. Gear that would previously be made of organic materials like hemp and rope and would biodegrade in the environment if it was lost now is made of incredibly durable material so it lasts for hundreds of years.

“It’s equipment that is designed to catch marine animals and does that very effectively whether it’s under the control of a fisherman or not. More and more of it accrues in the ocean and the estimate is that 10 per cent of marine litter is fishing gear. The latest estimate is 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost at sea each year. The big nets can be the size of a football field.

“Each piece of that is going to hang around in the ocean slowly degrading. For hundreds of years it is going to keep catching animals and eventually it will degrade and add to the microplastics issue. In terms of the impact on animals, it is horrific. Ghost gear kills millions of marine animals each year.”