DONAL HICKEY: Ending the spectre of ghost nets

An estimated 640,000 tonnes of lost fishing nets kill more than 136,000 seals, sea lions, and whales every year, in addition to millions of birds, turtles and fish, in the world’s oceans, according to World Animal Protection, writes Donal Hickey.

Sometimes called “ghost nets”, they can often be found in shipwrecks and account for one-10th of all marine litter.

Divers from the international Ghost Fishing Foundation, which works with local groups, will this year be focusing on our south coast. They hope to retrieve some of these abandoned nets and other marine debris. It will be the foundation’s first project in Ireland.

They will be working with local partners like marine zoologist Nic Slocum, from Whale Watch West Cork, and Matt Jevon, South West Technical Diving, Kinsale. Their aim is not only to remove the nets but also to create awareness of the problem by sharing photos and films of the clean-up project.

Our southern coast is one of the best areas for whale and dolphin watching in Europe, being a summer feeding ground for a number of whale species and a year-round home for several resident dolphin species, including the harbour porpoise.


Fin whales, minke whales and humpback whales are regularly seen and there are frequent sightings of various dolphin species. In all, 24 species of the world’s whales and dolphins have been recorded in Irish waters, underlining the importance of protecting this habitat.

Lost nets, pots, ropes, and other marine debris can drift huge distances with ocean currents and pose a threat to their life. This lost fishing gear leads to ghost fishing. Fish die after being caught up in the nets and attract predators which also get caught in the same net, creating a vicious circle that can go on for years in the same nets. The ghost net becomes a deadly trap.

Some nets are made of extremely durable materials which can take up to 600 years to break down into microplastics.

Teams of volunteer divers have been active in the UK, in recent years. They had been cleaning up the sea floor in Scapa Flow, Orkney, Scotland, before moving to wreck sites in Plymouth.

The recovered marine litter is recycled into textile products and is one of its uses is for carpet-manufacturing.

Several global brands, including Addidas, are also seeing the potential of this waste. It can be recycled into socks and swimwear, for instance.

There are projects in Chile, South America, which use the nets as base material for skateboards and sunglasses, while native people in Australia turn the nets into crafts and accessories.

Then there’s the Jenga Ocean board game, believed to be the first of its kind to be created from recycled fishing nets.

The game is educational and helps foster understanding about the harm such nets can do to marine animals.

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