Words by Rosie Cattrell
When hauling an empty net is a success, and a damaging waste product can be transformed into a durable resource that tells a story.
We all know of the sinister tales that come from the discarded fishing nets that spend their days at sea in a suspended animation of entanglement and strangulation, surrendering to the currents that spread their far-reaching fingers across the water for their next victim to find themselves caught amongst a tangle of unyielding knots and threads. The phenomenon known as ‘ghost fishing’ poses a devastating problem to marine life and our oceans, and as these abandoned nets are made of plastic they will not degrade, persisting to catch and kill marine life indefinitely.
Turning waste into resource
Harry Dennis, Founder and CEO of Waterhaul, is one individual who is only too aware of this devastating problem: “Before I started Waterhaul, I trained as a marine biologist. I saw first-hand the damage of plastic and ghost nets to our underwater ecosystems whilst on a research trip in Malaysia, and began volunteering on scuba-based ghost net recoveries on the island of Tioman where I was based.” Every year, at least 640,000 tonnes of fishing nets are lost or discarded in the ocean (in fact, this is a very outdated statistic, and most in this field expect that the figure in reality is much greater). The numbers are overwhelming, and only continue to grow. “We’ve come to realise the scale of the ghost gear problem, the threats it poses to wildlife, and the lack of attention that it gets. Fishing related debris are particularly harmful in our oceans due to their tendency to entangle marine life and damage seabed habitats, such as kelp beds and coral reefs,” explains Harry.
Having had a front row seat to this devastating spectacle, the seed of an idea that would form the basis of a unique company had long been planted for Harry: “As ghost nets are made from a durable and long-lasting type of plastic, I began thinking about ways to recycle them into something new. It seemed a waste to have this resource causing so much environmental damage when it could be used as a manufacturing material.” Not only does recycling this type of plastic remove a deadly threat to our marine life, it also prevents virgin plastics from being produced – cutting fossil fuel production – and reducing the amount of waste from entering the environment or heading to landfill.
With a mind to create an impact and protect the marine environments that we love, Waterhaul was born. Taking its name from a Newfoundland term used to describe the act of hauling in an empty net absent of any catch, the company has re-purposed the word to encompass a positive act of ocean conservancy, and to reflect their re-purposing of abandoned nets retrieved from the sea into something productive rather than destructive.
Unlike the fishermen and women of Newfoundland, for this team hauling in an empty net from the ocean is always a success. “We recently began working with fisherfolk around the UK and overseas to tackle the ghost gear problem. Often, they face hefty fees to dispose of their fishing gear correctly which many of them cannot afford – and the fishing gear that is disposed of heads straight to landfill,” explains Harry. “We want to intercept this waste, by offering fisherfolk a way of disposing of gear safely and without cost, and recycling it into something new. Circular economy business models are the way forward – we need to cut virgin plastics from the chain and ensure that the materials and products that we produce are fully recyclable. It’s up to businesses like us to make that change. Our theory of change is simply to give plastic ‘waste’ a value through transforming it into our products, and thereby incentivising it to be recovered from the ocean and avoid it getting there in the first place.”
The Harlyn shades in stunning Aqua
Utilising the strongest form of plastic in our oceans to produce exceptionally sustainable, recycled eyewear, Harry takes us through the problems he faced when Waterhaul was still a side project alongside a full-time job: “It took nearly a year of experimentation with different techniques and with different types of net to develop the first prototype. Not having an engineering background, the whole process was a huge learning curve and the first few months were almost solid research before the tools came out. The major challenges were around down-scaling industrial scale processes which were too large scale or unfeasible with my shoestring budgets, and building partnerships and convincing suppliers and manufacturers in the eyewear industry to work with me on the project. But eventually, I had a product I was proud of.”
Waterhaul’s eyewear range is made from 100% recycled fishing nets that have been retrieved from the sea, without the addition of virgin plastics or chemicals. This brings with it the unexpected benefit of a completely unique and rather beautiful texture and colour, as Harry points out: “Each model is the same in terms of shape and durability, but as for the nets they are made from, each pair is unique to the beach it came from. The pigment in our Harlyn Aqua sunglasses model, for instance, is a bright sea glass colour, and is the exact shade of the nets that we use to make them, no pigments are added, allowing people to feel close to the ocean and know they have supported work to protect it.” The plastic used to produce fishing nets is incredibly high quality, and would last in the ocean for over 500 years unless removed, making it a durable resource. A level of consistency comes with each haul, as some nets recovered are over 800 metres in length, which is a huge amount of a single polymer type.
Since then, Waterhaul have branched out from eyewear into other products that can make the most of this effective resource while raising awareness of the message behind the company. “Since we started making the sunglasses, we’ve had plenty of other ideas and ways that we could share this message,” explains Harry. “We started making pocketknives from the same recycled fishing nets, and our litter pickers have been really popular with beach cleaning groups and schools. We use the pocketknives ourselves to extract nets from rocks and caves around our coastline, so we wouldn’t go anywhere without them, but I have to say our litter pickers are one of my favourite products. They have become increasingly useful in the stormy season when plastic washes up on our beaches, and the community that has developed online and around the coast has been heart-warming to witness. People of all ages are working together, using our litter pickers to make a difference to their local, natural spaces, and that’s exactly why we started making them – to inspire others to join us in taking positive action.”
Having developed an ocean addiction as a teenager through surfing, as many local Cornish folk do, Cornwall was the ultimate destination for Harry to eventually find his home by the coast, and he’s been in love with the place ever since: “I’ve noticed that people living by the coast are actively involved in ocean conservation, and I think the reason for that is they are reminded of it every time they go to the beach and see it littered with fishing debris, litter and microplastics – not to mention the marine entanglements. But we believe that education is the way forward. If we can show people the correct ways to dispose of their waste, and integrate it into the manufacturing chain, we can have a hugely positive impact. If people don’t know where their waste goes, or the damage it causes, they won’t realise the importance of the reduce, reuse, recycle initiative. We’re hoping to change this by promoting positive action, and helping people to feel good while they do it.”
Left: Harry Dennis, Founder and CEO
In terms of the future, Waterhaul are focusing on their ‘PlaNET Action’ education programme, and are looking to find ways to expand this nationwide, and even globally, as Harry explains: “It is important for us to share the skills and knowledge that we have gained with other individuals and businesses, as we truly believe that it could change the way we view plastic in the future. There are endless possibilities for the ways that plastic waste can be extracted and reused, rather than producing more. We would love to involve as many people as possible in this as we can, and spread our message far and wide. We hope that one day, everyone will want to take part in this issue, whether it be attending a beach clean, litter picking around their local streets and parks, or working with local fisherfolk to find a solution. We need to work together against this problem, that is the way forward.”