Ghost Nets

When a person sits down to a fish curry or a portion of fish and chips, they rarely think of where that fish comes from. We rarely realize that when we consume fish, we are eating the last truly wild caught meat on the planet, our ancient role as hunters reprised in the role of modern day fishermen.

Of course the new age fishermen are a far cry from what they were centuries or even decades ago. With engines, mechanization, longlines that stretch for kilometers with thousands of hooks and nets that could engulf the Empire State Building, the fisheries industry has become almost unrecognizable as has sadly our oceans, rapidly depleted and overfished what we see in our seas now appears to be but a sad remnant of the abundance that was there decades ago.

Our surface interval chats with Uncle Sumathi used to really bring this home, 56 years old, he had seen foreign trawlers come and rape the seas off Colombo, taking so much fish that the numbers have never recovered. Apparently the local fishermen had to gang up and beat up some of the fishermen who came in the trawlers to get rid of them and protect what was left. The discussion about the differences from then and now were frequent and depressing.

We rarely think about the ‘cost’ of the food on our plate except in monetary terms. The reality is that there is a far greater hidden cost to our environment, apart from the incidental catch which kills thousands of marine mammals and birds a year our hunger for fish continues to kill days, weeks, months and even years after the fishermen have moved on. This is done silently, without fan-fare by lost nets, those that escaped the fishermen, taken away by currents or carelessness.

A fish eye view of a derelict net, a net smothering Palagala (shallow reef in Colombo)

We see these nets often on our dives, especially on the inner reefs, carpeting the rock smothering everything in its path. Some are huge and while we try and take off what we can, it is a disheartening process as sea fans and soft corals often crunch away from the rock as we cut the nets. We often find fish entangled, dead or dying and other animals (await a story about a crab rescued from a net) waiting for a slow, inevitable death in the nets.

Dead and beheaded, a fish killed by a ghost net

One of our wrecks, the Medhafaru was literally a tomb for fish being sheathed in nets before some inteprid divers from the Sri Lanka Sub Aqua Club cleared a lot of them from the ship. Research has provided some staggering estimates for kills from these nets, with a  single net in Puget Sound being estimated to have killed over 3,000 seabirds and fish combined. We don’t have any figures from Sri Lanka but it would be safe to assume fish kills are quite high.

Perilously close, fish feed close to a net on the Medhafaru

Divers can of course play a part in removing this menace but with the risk of entanglement it is advisable if only experienced divers working in teams tackle this kind of thing. We can all however try and understand where our seafood comes from and at least appreciate the cost to our natural systems from this harvest.

Cutting a net off the reef (only experienced divers should do this)