Hong Kong

Hong Kong

One man’s ghost gear quest

Harry Chan started diving in 1987. Now, aged 68, heading underwater has become more than just a hobby. A self-proclaimed ghost net hunter, he has spent the past decade pulling out discarded fishing nets and other gear from the ocean to clean the waters and beaches around Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s fishing industry has a significant role in providing a steady supply of marine products. According to the government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department (AFCD), in 2020 it produced around 116,000 tonnes from the South and East China Seas. Following a statutory ban on trawling in 2012, main fishing methods today include gill netting, longlining and purse seining.

In addition to the ban on trawling, destructive fishing practices such as the use of explosives, electricity, dredging and suction devices are also prohibited, while the government has established a series of measures to protect marine resources and promote sustainable development. Examples include a registration system for local fishing vessels, restricting fishing from non-fishing vessels and prohibiting fishing with non-local vessels.

Harry Chan has spent more than a decade hauling discarded fishing gear from the waters around Hong Kong. Images: Harry Chan

Around 5040 vessels and 10,150 local fishermen are part of the industry, which also provides employment in sectors such as wholesale and retail marketing, fuel, gear supplies and ice manufacturing. But ghost gear is becoming an increasing concern.

‘People mistakenly believe that it’s a regional problem,’ Harry Chan said.

Ghost gear is increasingly becoming a concern

‘But it’s a serious global issue, and so far it’s hard to count the extent of the destruction. It carries many things ashore. It drifts with the current for days, weeks, months, even decades, and is free transport for disease, bacteria and marine pest species. There are two types of ghost nets. One tangles around coral reefs or rocks and sinks to the bottom of the seabed, significantly damaging the ecosystem. The other is what I call a spirit ghost net. It’s a floating net that drops into the ocean from a commercial fishing boat, for example, and carries on drifting, killing all kinds of marine life. Even people can become entangled, and ghost gear also affects their safety and health. A lot of people here get sick or have conditions such as eczema or skin disease. I strongly believe that the marine environment is directly connected. Then we have the fishermen who are also affected, because nets can reduce or cut off their catch, or wrap around their boats’ propellors and anchors.’

Lost fishing gear retrieved by Harry Chan and his team

But for the fishing industry at least, his work is slowly making a difference. Removing each square metre of ghost net has saved an array of marine life that fishermen catch, while ghost nets have also been removed in areas that were blocking fish from swimming towards shallower water.

‘Preventing marine litter and refuse, especially ghost gear, and removing it where it does occur, is one of the key elements of moving to sustainable fishing in our oceans, so hats off to Harry Chan,’ said Prof. Laurence McCook, Director of Oceans Conservation at WWF Hong Kong.

‘Here in Hong Kong, as elsewhere in the South China Sea and even globally, we’ve seen first hand how looking after the ocean environment is not only critical for nature, but it’s also fundamental for the long-term sustainability of fisheries, and thus, in turn, to the livelihoods of the fishers that depend on having enough healthy fish to catch.’