Dealing with Ghosts - Halloween with a Twist

Today, on Halloween; the time of year when children dress up as ghosts and in other costumes. But when I dress up to deal with ghosts it involves dry suits, BCDs, regulators, and other scuba gear. And I change into my costume year-round to deal with ghosts. These ghosts are remnants of the past, deadly, scary, and not very visible. We are talking about ghost gear. Derelict fishing gear also called ghost gear is fishing gear lost, discarded, or stuck on reefs in oceans and rivers. This ghost gear continues to catch, harm and kill non-targeted species of marine life ranging from marine mammals and invertebrates to fish and even birds.

Photo courtesy of Kathy Johnson

My first ever experience with ghost gear was in 2011 after one of our groups of divers found an abandoned gill net on one of the dive sites here in Barkley Sound. It took 3 weeks to get a break in the weather before we could remove it. In that time, it had snagged and killed many marine animals like fish, crabs, and even birds such as cormorants. It was one of the hardest things I ever saw underwater and it prompted me to take action. I wrote an outline that contained procedures and methods that could be used to report and remove lost fishing gear. The outline included ways to do an assessment, determine what gear was needed, dive and removal procedures, rescuing animals still alive, and disposal.

Photo courtesy of Aaron Richard Jay

Once I felt comfortable that the procedures were practical and safe, my wife Kathy Johnson and I set to work. Within a few months we had located a number of gill nets, commercial and recreational prawn and crab traps on a number of sites that were close to fisheries and were shallow enough to risk fishing gear getting snagged on.

After we did a few initial dives to remove gill nets with the assistance of the Coast Guard and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO) for surface support and disposal, we worked with the local office of DFO and the local gill net association to create a system by which the fishermen can report a lost net, DFO will register it and pass the coordinates on to us, and we can remove it.

Throughout the following years we had discussions with DFO, and they helped us by announcing our volunteer program to the fishermen at the start of every fishery. This led to a few occasions where we got the report of entangled gill nets within hours and we were able to get to the sites the same or next day and remove the nets completely. One of these sites was Jupe rock, a little reef that comes up to 12 ft and is a popular dive site. After an initial dive to assess the situation, we managed to lift the 200ft of net off the top and sides. In that process, we released ratfish, red irish lords, Puget sound king crabs, and hundreds of sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and all kinds of other invertebrates.

 

 

Video courtesy of Peter Mieras

Encouraged by the response and success, we continued to clean up reefs and sites. We even assisted in the disentanglement of a humpback whale that was caught in commercial prawn traps. This work did not go unnoticed, and we got some coverage on local TV and radio. These media events not only helped to increase the awareness of the problem, but encouraged divers, aquariums, museums, and other organizations to assist with our only funding - the sales of the DVD “Kelp and Critters” that we produced.

Disentanglement of a humpback whale video courtesy of Peter Mieras, Paul Downie, Mike Javling, and stills by Paul Cottrell

 

TV interview we gave to Shaw TV video courtesy of Peter Mieras

Our efforts eventually led to discussions with DFO to make reporting the loss of a net a mandatory condition of commercial gill net fishing licenses. In the time that this program has officially been running we have successfully removed 7 full or partial gill nets, numerous commercial and recreational prawn and crab traps, and our divers continue to bring up lost recreational gear such as flashers, hooks, lures, lead weights etc. We also saved countless fish and invertebrates caught in the nets.

In 2016 we teamed up with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and were involved in both filming and removing a purse seine net around Pender Island. In October of that year we managed to hand a letter to pleading for a national program to the Liberal Party of Canada via member Stan Sakomoto to the Right Honourable Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Here is a short video on that removal project. Video courtesy of Peter Mieras

In 2018 we produced a map of Barkley Sound that was handed out to gill net fishermen alerting them to sites where previous events of snagged nets had taken place. With this simple tool they were able avoid areas where the risk of losing nets was high. This was a pro active rather than our reactive approach until then. This resulted in zero entanglements of nets to date, which was the ultimate goal of our efforts. In that same year we received a Coastal Ocean Award for this program.

In 2019 the Canadian government announced an 8.3 million dollar program for the systematic removal of derelict fishing gear by commercial divers and other organizations. We are extremely grateful for this and even if we just gave a small impetus for this to happening, it feels great to know that in time and with many people’s efforts we finally may lay these ghosts to rest.

Happy Halloween !!

 

DIVING AROUND OR REMOVING NETS IS VERY DANGEROUS. DO NOT ATTEMPT IF YOU ARE NOT TRAINED TO DO SO. THIS ARTICLE IS FOR INFORMATION PURPOSES ONLY.

Many thanks to all who have made this program such a success!