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Ghost nets haunt Hong Kong waters, killing marine life and endangering divers

Harry Chan recovers ghost nets stuffed with fishing hooks, wires and dead coral during a cleanup in Sai Kung. Photo courtesy: Harry Chan

It took Harry Chan Tin-ming and a group of ten divers two hours under the sea in Tai Po to find and haul out 800 kilograms of abandoned fishing nets. 

“90% of the time I go diving, I see ghost nets and it’s a big problem for marine life including fish, crabs, sea turtles and other marine life,” said Chan. 

The large number of abandoned fishing nets, also known as “ghost nets”, is alarming and has become a major issue for marine life, its habitat and even commercial fishermen. 

Chan, 68, known in Hong Kong as the “ghost net hunter”, has been diving for over 30 years and started regularly hunting for these nets more than eight years ago. “The ocean is a mystery,” he said. 

Ghost nets are dangerous because marine life becomes entangled, affecting the health of the ocean and even divers who try removing them. They haunt the oceans and are a major contributor to the wider ocean plastic crisis.

Made from a range of synthetic fibers, including nylon, polystyrene and other plastic compounds, ghost nets can travel vast distances. 

"From the biggest fishing nets to the tiniest pellets, plastic pollution is impacting the ocean," said Dana Winograd, Director of Operations for Plastic Free Seas, a charity focused on solution-oriented awareness about plastic pollution in the ocean. It is also involved in regular beach cleanups around Hong Kong.

A diver rescues a crab caught by a ghost net at about 17m underwater at Shek Ngau Chau in Tai Po. Photo courtesy: Norie Ishida

In October, Winograd and a group of volunteers found ghost nets washed up on beaches in two of their last three beach cleanups at Butterfly Beach in Tuen Mun and Cheung Sha Lan on Lantau Island. 

"It's not easy to recycle the nets if they have been in the ocean for a long time. Most companies claiming to use recycled fishing nets in their products are only using a very small amount," said Winograd. 

An abandoned ghost net is entangled in a coral area in Tung Ping Chau, Mirs Bay. The coral is starting to grow over it, using it as a scaffold. Photo courtesy: Markus Rummel

Markus Rummel, a biotechnologist and ocean enthusiast who frequently volunteers in marine science projects, has been a diver for over 16 years. Rummel recently became a diving instructor who educates people on diving and the marine environment.

"Ghost nets entangle and kill animals until they are eventually overgrown by marine life. Unfortunately there is a constant supply of new nets to the ocean," said Rummel. 

in December 2012,  the Hong Kong government banned the destructive practice of trawling, when fishing boats drag large nets behind them, leading to overfishing and destruction of seabed habitats.  

But ghost nets remain, and removing them is dangerous. When divers run out of compressor air, especially around the later part of their dive, it can be risky for them to rescue marine life trapped in a ghost net.

"I would not recommend an inexperienced diver to attempt ghost net removal. It requires good buoyancy and control of your movement in the water, otherwise you might get entangled yourself," said Rummel. 

The visibility in Hong Kong waters can be low, depending on the temperature. Two divers in the same location can have different visibility, making it difficult to navigate and recover ghost nets.

Every year, between 500,000 and 1 million tons of ghost fishing equipment are abandoned in the ocean, according to recent figures from the World Wide Fund for Nature. 

A fishermen works at a fish farm about 2 kilometres from Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung

“When we go diving, we see small fishing boats, fishermen dumping nets…While side by side, we are preparing our gear to remove their nets. It’s a cycle,” said Norie Ishida, 39, a Japanese diving instructor.

Ishida started diving over 15 years ago and has been diving regularly in Hong Kong for the past five years. “Fishing nets are one of the biggest problems I see underwater that’s hurting marine life in Hong Kong. Animals get trapped, slowly dying in the nets, killing coral that takes ages to grow,” said Ishida. 

Norie Ishida at Pak Lap Wan in Sai Kung. Photo courtesy: Norie Ishida

So Kwai-loi, 66, has been fishing for 40 years. A few years ago, So began selling fish and still remains involved in the fishing community in Sai Kung. 

It is not uncommon for fishermen to report seeing ghost nets every couple of days. "In the past, when I began fishing some 40 years ago, there was no such problem like ghost nets. Nets were expensive and were made by hand," said So. 

Mass-produced fishing nets are cheaper now and cost about HK$200 depending on size and type, meaning almost everyone can afford to buy one.

Old fishing nets can be recycled in mainland China and fishermen can earn about HK$20 depending on the size by recycling them. 

"I disagree that professional fishermen would abandon fishing nets in the sea because it could be recycled for some money. The nets are abandoned by unprofessional people fishing for fun,"  said So. 

"We welcome divers to clean the seabed but don't take away operating fishing nets. Be aware of them," said So. It's not difficult to differentiate between new nets still in operation and older ghost nets filled with debris.

Norie Ishida helps her students load the compressor air on the boat to ready for a dive about 2 kilometres from Wong Shek Pier in Sai Kung.

More than 38,500 species are under threat of extinction, 28 percent of which includes sharks, rays and coral reefs, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List of Threatened Species,  the standard for the classification of species that are at risk of global extinction.

Mike Belshaw, from the United Kingdom, dives with the South China Diving Club in Aberdeen and has been diving in Hong Kong every other week for almost 23 years. 

“Fishing nets found around the inland waters of Hong Kong are indiscriminate, usually catching undersized marine animals and often snagged on the sea bottom, leaving the nets to destroy the marine environment for a very very long time. They should be banned,” said Belshaw. 

Jaden Head, 16, is a professional rowing athlete at the Hong Kong Sports Institute. He is competing in the “Around the Island Race” to raise funds and awareness for the Ocean Recovery Alliance, an NGO focused on entrepreneuring programmes to reduce plastic pollution, both on land and in water, by creating strategic solutions for governments, industry and communities. 

"I tend to avoid ghost nets when I see them while rowing. I have tried dragging them to land but they get caught in my hands and I just leave them and go," said Head. 

The abandoned ghost nets that end up breaking down never disappear, disintegrating into microplastics over time. Marine life sometimes mistakes them for food, which can harm their internal organs and expose them to toxic chemicals. 

It’s hard to tell fishermen not to use nets as they provide their income and their way of life. "Awareness and education for fishermen on how important it is to recover their nets is needed; there are programmes with incentives to encourage them to dispose of their damaged fishing nets properly," said Winograd. 

Chan was awarded a medal of honour in 2020 by the Hong Kong government in recognition of his dedicated community service, as well as contribution to the promotion of environmental and conservation education. 

"I tell my family, if I ever get caught in a ghost net and have no one to rescue me, they should not cry, " Chan said. "They should be proud of me for what I love doing. It is a mission."

《The Young Reporter》

The Young Reporter (TYR) started as a newspaper in 1969. Today, it is published across multiple media platforms and updated constantly to bring the latest news and analyses to its readers.


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