The Healthy Seas initiative was founded in 2013 to tackle the ghost fishing phenomenon which is responsible for the needless death of marine animals. Through cleanups with volunteer divers and by working with stakeholders of the fishing sector toward marine litter prevention, Healthy Seas collects waste nets and ensures they become a valuable resource.
The work divers do is difficult and dangerous and they often dive in conditions of bad visibility, for example in the North Sea. Each year from February to December, Healthy Seas focuses on its diving missions which are contingent on weather conditions. The diving teams are made up of passionate volunteers and in the summer months it may be the case that a diving mission takes place every weekend.
A group of divers is able to recover 300 kg of ghost nets within a day. Pascal van Erp, the Diving Coordinator for Healthy Seas, explains how these recovery missions work:
"In most cases, fishermen and other divers report to us where ghost nets are located."
Pascal van Erp
How did you come to HEALTHY SEAS?
Since many years our team has been diving at shipwrecks. It is most often at those diving spots that fishing gear gets caught and subsequently lost by fishermen. Our team took the initiative to organize clean up dives together with other like-minded divers and this got the attention of the founders of the Healthy Seas initiative who offered to take the recovered fishing nets from us and do something useful with them. The removal of nets is a high precision job and not without danger, therefore we only operate with a well-trained team. Each member knows each other very well and everyone follows very strict technical diving standards and procedures to ensure maximum safety.
How do you know where nets are?
Unfortunately, this is very easy to answer: Nets are found on any underwater object. This could be a wreck, stone or reef. Fishing gear can get stuck and lost at anything projecting from the sandy sea bottom. In most cases, fishermen and other divers report to us where ghost nets are located.
Where do you dive and how often?
We dive all over Europe and every weekend if the weather conditions allow it. For example, a regular North Sea dive in our own country (the Netherlands) means two dives a day exactly at slack water (changing tides). The interval between slack water is 6 hours. We dive with a team of 6 – 12 divers who are all trained and operating the same way so we can respond fast to any issue that may arise underwater.
What motivates you to continue working?
Ghost fishing is a huge problem which is only getting bigger every day. It is estimated that 640,000 tons of fishing gear is lost or abandoned in the seas and oceans each year. Every time we dive we encounter new lost fishing gear. As a team, we are trying our best to solve this problem by taking action and exposing the problem for the eyes of the public as much as we can.
"One of the most horrific impacts of ghost fishing is called the cycle of death"
Pascal van Erp
Why is it important to stop ghost fishing?
One of the most horrific impacts of ghost fishing is called the cycle of death. Fish and marine animals get trapped in ghost nets, attracting larger animals that want to feed on them and then they also get trapped in the ghost nets continuing the cycle.
Most fishing nets are made of plastic which does not decompose and stays in the sea forever, slowly losing tiny particles, called microplastics, which end up in the stomachs of fish and eventually ours.
What are the biggest challenges to getting lost fishing gear out of the water? How do you overcome them?
Once fishermen lose their nets in the sea, the only way they can be removed is by highly skilled technical divers who are trained to do this job. Unpredictable weather conditions, low visibility, deep waters but also high costs for filling the gas tanks, travel expenses and also boat hiring are some of the challenges. The regulatory framework differs in every country so for any initiative like Healthy Seas, that operates on an international level, this is also an obstacle.
The divers are very well trained, obey a strict protocol and operate as a team to perform their job safely and successfully. The other challenges described above are overcome by being well prepared and organised and by having reliable local partners.
Salvage includes the rescue of animals. Which experience is particularly remembered?
In terms of rescuing animals, what I have observed is that no single animal is safe from ghost fishing gear. Unfortunately, we find any kind of fish entangled in nets, as well as sharks, dolphins, seals and also less common animals like octopuses, starfish or even sea cucumbers. We have seen it all and it is very worrying.
This summer in the Adriatic Sea, we found 2 Common Stingrays, one of which was already dead. The other one, found on the very last diving day, was entangled in a gill net at 28m of depth and could be released. We were there just in time, it couldn’t stay a day longer without being attacked and eaten. The release was very special and “thrilling”, I thought a moment about Steve Erwin while looking at her tail she used to defend herself. The final moment she swam away was very nice to witness.