Divers recover 1500 kilograms of lost fishing gear from Shetland waters: part 1

Net on the shipwreck Fraoch Ban. Image: Rich Walker

We are on our way home after a groundbreaking week helping fishermen clean-up lost fishing gear around the Shetland Islands in the north of Scotland. In this, the first of a three part series introducing the Shetland mission, we’ll give you an overview of the project’s aims and accomplishments.

Twelve volunteer divers arrived and began diving on 6th August 2023 for a week aboard the MV Valhalla and in six days recovered 1500 kilograms of lost fishing gear. It included a trawl net from the wreck of the Fraoch Ban, forty-one creel pots and some keeper pots – all were returned to fishermen.

We were invited to Shetland by a group called Fishing Forward, who were concerned about the number of abandoned gill nets in Scottish waters that are being pulled in by fishing trawlers. These nets are not used by local fishers, yet they are causing havoc with wildlife and there are huge concerns about pollution, net dumping and littering from foreign gill netters.

Ghost Fishing UK is committed to working with the fishing community to try and solve the issues of ghost fishing, a phenomenon where lost or abandoned fishing gear continues to do its job, catching and killing marine life until it is removed from the sea. We’ve responded to reports from fishers to locate and remove lost fishing gear, particularly strings of creels. We also select and train divers ourselves, all on a volunteer basis.

Christine Grosart, Ghost Fishing UK’s Secretary, explains “The gill nets tend to be in very deep water, and we have no way of knowing where they are. We decided to pick low hanging fruit this week and try and get some lost creels back to the local fishers, whilst starting a discussion on how we can work together to solve bigger problems of gill nets. We could not have done this without the cooperation of the Shetland fishing community. Hazel Weaver, master of MV Valhalla has been working tirelessly to get the word out to fishermen that we were coming to help. We are eternally grateful to her and the fishermen who reported their lost pots – they were delighted to get them back again.”

The divers traveled far and wide in Shetland, one day heading two hours north to find a string of lost pots and returned them to their owner. Later in the week, another good report with clear marks led the team to recover another twenty pots, all of which were good enough to be taken back into operation by their owner and other fishermen who were happy to fix them up.

Some of the Ghost Fishing UK team en route to Shetland

Keen to learn more about the fishing practices in the area, Arlene Robertson from Fishing Forward introduced the divers to John-Arthur, skipper of Kiama and he welcomed two of the team out on his creel boat for the day.

“We had the best day ever” Christine said. “Ghost Fishing UK diver Matt Smith and I learned so much from John-Arthur. He didn’t hold back telling us about the struggles of smaller local boats and we felt compelled at the end of the day to do all we could to help. He was kind enough to let us have a go at emptying and stacking creels, although I don’t think he’ll be offering us a job any time soon! What these guys do is incredible!”

Christine (left) with John-Arthur (right)

When weather prevented diving from the boat, half the divers visited Hillswick Wildlife Sanctuary to meet the latest intake, three seal pups in need of human care prior to release. Pete and Jan who have been running the sanctuary for thirty-six years said, “It was extremely gratifying to have the team from Ghost Fishing UK arriving in Shetland to work on clearing old fishing nets, ropes and creels from the seabed around the islands. They are a passionate bunch of highly skilled people doing great work for our marine environment, which is in such desperate need of help from humankind. What made their visit even more inspiring was the close working relationship they have developed with Shetland’s fishing crews who are feeling squeezed by a pincer movement of government regulation on one side and unregulated competition on the other. To witness conservationists working hand in hand with the fishing community to take on the responsibility of cleaning up our oceans is exactly the sort of example the world needs right now.”

The others set about responding to a report from a local lady in Gunnister Voe, recovering a mess of ropes and lost pots that had been long abandoned, from the shore.

The ghost Fshing UK team at Gunnister Voe

We enlisted volunteers from the public to help with the washing down operation and were stunned to find that some people had travelled to Shetland specifically to help us. “I couldn’t believe it,” Christine said. “They just turned up and set about pressure washing, sorting and bagging ropes, net and stacking pots. We clean the ropes because they are made of polypropylene and this can be recycled by our partner, Ocean Plastic Pots. All we needed was some help getting them back to the mainland.”

Two of those volunteers, Maggie and Simon Wilcox said “Beach cleaning at our home in Overstrand, Norfolk during Covid kept us active and focussed. We now pick beach rubbish wherever we go, home or away. When I read on social media that Ghost Fishing UK was heading to Shetland at the same time as us, we jumped at the opportunity to help out at the quayside and volunteer with these fabulous folks who give up their time to rid our coastal waters of ghost gear.”

Ghost Fishing UK hopes to return to Shetland to continue our work and are appealing for fishers to report gear losses through our dedicated reporting system.