Ghosts of the sea

Words by Emma Baines


The recovered fishing nets that are being given a second lease of life by a Cornish dive company.

The term ‘ghost fishing’ sounds hauntingly menacing, and with good cause. When fishing gear from vessels gets lost, dumped or abandoned in the sea it often gets caught on reefs and wrecks creating a webbing of debris meant to catch fish, but no longer with anyone profiting from its catch. It is therefore unattended, forgotten and posing a serious threat.

‘Ghost’ fishing gear

Lost ‘ghost gear’ amounts to over 600,000 tonnes every single year (UNEP/FAO, 2009). The main hazard is to marine life – from invertebrates to large marine mammals – who get entangled, either drowning within minutes, or enduring long, slow deaths from debilitating wounds, infection and starvation. It is estimated that this kills at least 136,000 seals, sea lions and large whales every year (World Animal Protection). These animals die and in turn attract scavengers which will get caught in that same net, thus creating a vicious circle.

More than 600,000 tonnes of fishing gear is lost per year

The effects of ghost gear can be catastrophic, Howard Hall

Hundreds of thousands of marine animals die per year as a result, left, Jordi Chias, right, Cor Kuyvenhoven / Ghost Diving


Although prevention would be ideal, recovery is possible. Teams of volunteer technical divers now carry out rescue missions around the world to bring identified, derelict gear to the surface. Trained divers cut free the net if it is attached to wrecks or reefs and use lift bags to ease the often-weighty debris out of the water. In a recent mission, a team of 45 from Ghost Diving and Healthy Seas – most of whom were volunteers – undertook an unprecedented clean-up, removing an astonishing 76 tonnes of debris from the sea, coastline, and four beaches in just one week on the island of Ithaca, Greece.

Once the waste is removed, it is washed and sorted and in many cases a way of recycling it is found. Aquafil, a European company leading the way in regeneration, takes fishing nets and other waste such as fabric scraps and carpets and purifies the nylon right back to its original state. This creates ECONYL® which is then spun into nylon yarn, which is used to create new products and has the potential to be recycled infinitely without losing its quality. As well as being a solution for waste, ECONYL® regenerated nylon is also better when it comes to climate change. It reduces the global warming impact of nylon by up to 90% compared with the material from oil (econyl.com).

Left, ECONYL® polymer, right, ECONYL® yarn

“At fourth element, we are a passionate team of divers and ocean advocates and want to do whatever we can to help the environment that we treasure so much. When we first learnt about the stories of ghost nets many years ago there was no question that we needed to contribute in some way. By donating kit to the organisations that carry out the rescue dives and using the regenerated ECONYL® nylon in our products, the amount of gear left in our oceans reduces and countless lives are saved,” explains fourth element co-owner Paul Strike.

Thermocline wetsuits by fourth element, made using ECONYL®

“By reusing the salvaged material, we give the waste new purpose and a reason to be recovered. Our swimwear collections are all made from ECONYL®, combined with xtra life™ LYCRA® to offer a material both environmentally conscious and with long lasting performance. We have also started integrating ECONYL® into our technical garments such as our Thermocline wetsuits and Xerotherm hoodies, with scope to use these regenerated materials in different products increasing every year. We believe materials like these are key to future developments and creating a sustainable business.”

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