30 Sep Going to Great Depths for Ghost Gear
This blog was written by Jenna Schwerzmann. Originally from upstate New York, Jenna began her marine conservation career on Long Island after graduating from Stony Brook University with a B.S. in Marine Vertebrate Biology and M.A. in Marine Conservation and Policy. She has experience with both research and outreach for local estuarine conservation efforts, including horseshoe crab monitoring, shellfish restoration and water quality projects, all through Cornell Cooperative Extension’s Marine Program. Jenna has also volunteered aboard whale watches since 2015 and interned at NOAA Fisheries in Gloucester, Massachusetts to assist with outreach for the Whale SENSE Program.
When scuba divers plan a trip to Southeast Asia, popular destinations include Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Divers travel from all over the world to see the pristine reefs of the Coral Triangle that are teeming with underwater wildlife. However, in nearby Burma, also known as Myanmar, a quieter dive mission has begun. After multiple encounters with “ghost gear” on Burma’s reefs, one diver decided to take matters into her own hands.
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Thanda Ko Gyi is a professional scuba diver who founded the Myanmar Ocean Project in 2018 in response to the abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG, or “ghost gear”) she discovered littering her home’s reefs. In response, Thanda started a project to restore and protect the health of Burma’s ocean by removing ghost gear and engaging local communities with support from World Animal Protection, National Geographic Society and Ocean Conservancy’s Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI). Since starting the project, Thanda and her dedicated team have successfully removed nearly two tons of ghost gear from remote reefs around Burma.
Thanda chooses her gear removal sites carefully to ensure the safety of her divers and to prioritize sensitive reefs and marine life habitats. One site in the Myeik Archipelago, called Sloop Rock, was identified after a visit to see the bamboo sharks residing in the reef, but they soon discovered the sharks were in trouble. “The whole place was covered in nets,” she said. It was clear that the nets had just recently been lost or abandoned, because while the sharks were still alive they’d been entangled and struggling in the nets for some time. Thanda’s team had not previously seen nets in this location, but she shared that the site was “completely blanketed” by debris on this day.
Unfortunately, the recreational divers were not able to tackle the massive net and bring it to the surface. They were on a tour schedule, so Thanda had to form a plan to come back at a later time. “You do what you can,” she said, “but it was a really bad experience.”
When fishing gear is lost, it moves with ocean currents and tends to accumulate into masses, forming hotspots that pose particularly significant problems and causing some reefs to change drastically within a relatively short period of time. A once-popular dive location called High Rock was expected to be relatively clean, as only one piece of gill net was observed there on a 2016 visit.
“By the time we went back in 2019, it had so many layers. And those used to be amazing dive sites,” Thanda said. Dive boats stopped visiting High Rock when they repeatedly found the reefs covered in nets and longlines, some of them hooking the divers and putting their safety at risk.
Thanda has documented the presence of ghost gear at 95% of the sites she has visited. But why? Fishers never want to lose their fishing gear. This gear is expensive to replace, and fishers lose valuable time on the water by doing so. The nets that Thanda retrieves often still have their valuable lead weights on them, which is a good indicator that they were lost unintentionally. Rough weather, entanglement with other gear or rocky structures underwater can all lead to this kind of accidental loss.
Unfortunately, no formal recycling infrastructure exists in Burma to recycle the recovered gear. But people reuse everything they can, and the stronger pieces of recovered nets are often washed and sold back to chicken farmers to use as fencing.
“With gill nets, if it’s still white, because it’s new, they will buy it,” Thanda explained. “If it is yellow or green, they can still wash it. It’s only been in the water for a few months or up to a season. By the time it’s red, I was told, they will no longer buy it. It means they can’t wash off the algae anymore.”
Moving forward, Thanda would like to look into creating a proper recycling facility for both land- and sea-based sources of marine litter, as few organized waste management systems are available in Burma or its island communities.
Although Thanda’s diving plans are currently on hold due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, she is still hard at work addressing the problem of ghost gear. The Myanmar Ocean Project just released a new report presenting the results that came out of their expeditions so far. Thanda would like to gain a better understanding of the ghost gear problem by interviewing more fishermen, researching the gear lifecycle and other potential intervention points to avoid gear loss in Burma’s pristine waters. Thanda is a prime example of how one person can inspire change, and how help from local communities is essential for success.