Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Raising awareness

Removing ghost gear is dangerous and gruelling work, but Harry Chan has both passion and determination. Along with NGOs and volunteers, he has collected over 80 tonnes of ghost gear and other trash. The team uses scissors to untangle items and free any trapped marine life. Lift bags and surface marker buoys (SMBs) help lift the gear to the surface.

‘We remove as much as we can,’ said Harry Chan, who himself goes out to sea twice a month, while also organising beach and shoreline cleanups.

‘But quantity is not the main way to solve a problem. It’s awareness, working out how to tackle the root cause and finding solutions. As a diver, I want to make my own contribution to the ocean and our planet. If I can inspire another person, then someone else will become inspired and the chain will grow. It’s all about mentality and helping people understand how serious ghost gear is. A lot of this is down to education. Here, people don’t really care about the ocean except to enjoy water sports.’

You don’t need to dive below the surface to find lost fishing gear

While he and his team are doing great work, it should not be attempted by recreational divers due to the dangers involved, said Laurence McCook. To that end, WWF Hong Kong has developed a Ghost Gear Detective programme, which asks divers to record the location of ghost gear they observe and report it for collection by experienced, qualified divers from AFCD.

But making sure that fishing gear doesn’t end up in the ocean in the first place is key. Chan believes that incentives for fishermen could help prevent the deliberate and accidental loss of gear. One example might be to find out what fishermen need and encourage them to bring back broken or un-used nets in exchange for items like bait or equipment or tools. A deposit system, which provides a significant refund on return of a net for disposal, is another possibility, according to Laurence McCook.

Returning to harbour with a load of retrieved fishing gear

‘Such a system would effectively prevent fishers from sourcing cheap nets elsewhere. If all nets were required to be tagged, with a significant penalty for fishing with an untagged net, then this would provide accountability. Further, tagged nets would also provide accountability for ghost nets; if a tagged net was unreported as lost, the fisher would have a significant penalty in addition to losing their deposit. This could also provide information on how and where nets/gear are being lost, enabling improved management.’

Fishermen are among the first to recognise that ghost gear is a problem, Harry Chan said, but their options are limited, while the additional infrastructure and cost required to dispose of nets more responsibly is a burden. Another way to find solutions will be a shift in perception so that used nets aren’t seen as a waste product but rather as a raw material for something else. Once it becomes a commodity worth having, it becomes a business opportunity.

A beach cleanup team with the results of their work

‘Ghost gear can be turned into arts and crafts, or mixed with other natural materials to produce things like door mats, carpets, baskets or picture frames,’ he said.

‘This creates jobs and extra income for fishermen, their families and others. Hong Kong used to be a fishing village and the fishermen here still have a very strong say. We need to listen to their experiences and work with them. We could also work with their suppliers or do research to gather more information. The fishermen would be willing to participate because ghost gear affects them too.’

Harry Chan and a young helper with some retrieved netting

As a newly-appointed Ambassador of the Ocean Park Conservation Foundation, Hong Kong (OPCFHK), he intends to continue donning his wetsuit and fighting against ghost gear. But more than this, he wants to be a part of global awareness and inspire others.

‘We won’t be here forever but the ocean will, so we need to do something because there will be more trash to come,” he said. “People are the ones who can help. If I can win round just one person, that’s a step forward. Spreading the message is key.  The ocean has no boundaries so we should all talk and share our knowledge.’