A national charity has made its first visit to Shetland to retrieve ghost gear.

Ghost Fishing UK was founded in 2015 and is run entirely by volunteers who dedicate their free time to removing lost and discarded gear from the sea. In 2022, they won the Sustainability Award at the Fishing News Awards.

Twelve divers spent a week in Shetland earlier this month, with the MV Valhalla taking them offshore to locate gear reported by local fishermen.

Ghost Fishing UK trustee and secretary Christine Grosart said: “We do it for the love, basically. We’re scuba divers who like to use our skills to clean up the ocean.

“We work with the fishing community to find out where stuff has been lost, so that we can target specific areas and bring it back to shore.”

The divers bring recovered material back to shore to be cleaned – everything is then either recycled or returned to the local fishing industry.

Whilst one of the charity’s first dives took place in Orkney, they have expanded all over the UK and this was their first time in Shetland.

Christine explained: “Some fishermen contacted us, concerned about a gill-net problem in Shetland, so we thought: ‘Okay, we’ll go up there and see what’s happening and see if we can help.’”

One of the first things the divers noticed was the amazing visibility in Shetland’s waters. “Our divers came up and were like: ‘Wow, it’s blue, it’s clear, we’ve got 20m to 30m visibility.’

“They were gobsmacked. Orkney was a little bit green, a little bit bitty. Down south in Cornwall, it can be nice, but not every day. Up here, we’re blown away by the environment – it’s absolutely stunning.”

The isles presented the divers with distinct challenges – and not just the rapidly changing weather. “Initially information came from diver reports, so around the UK we tend to target shipwrecks, which is where the stuff gets caught,” Christine said.

“Everyone knows where the wrecks are, so it’s easy for us to find. But obviously Shetland isn’t dived that much – it’s only during the summer months and specific sites.”

Because of this, the charity has been more dependent on reports from Shetland fishing vessels.

The relationship between Ghost Fishing UK and fishermen is a rather unique one – here, conservationists and the industry seem to be aligned.

“When we first started out, it was a scary place to go,” Christine said. “When you’re a conservation outfit, there is an assumption that you’re going to be anti-fishing and you’re all going to be vegans and you’re not going to play nicely with them.

“We’ve never had that approach – we’re divers, we like eating fish.

“We also like to look after the marine environment that we enjoy, the same as the fishermen want to look after the environment that’s their livelihood, so we’re all on the same page really.”

One thing the two groups firmly agree on is the local problems with gill-nets discarded by foreign vessels. “Our plan at the end of this week is try and put a case together with the fishing community on gill-netting, which I don’t believe has been done before,” said Christine.

She described the Shetland fishing community as being ‘extremely accommodating’, with one local man taking her out on his creel boat to learn what goes on.

“We don’t see any advantage in doing what we do if we’re working against the fishermen,” she said. “We need to know where they’ve lost their gear – and we can’t recycle creels, so we really want to give them back to them.”

The Shetland campus of the University of the Highlands and Islands has also been involved. “The university have come down to have a look because they’re interested in the growth on the ropes.

“The great thing about working with the fishermen is that they will tell us when they were lost, so we’ve got a timeline for how long those have been in the water.

“Everyone’s a winner here: the fishermen get their stuff back, we get the stuff out of the sea, and the university get to do some science as well – it’s been really productive so far.”

This story was taken from the latest issue of Fishing News. For more up-to-date and in-depth reports on the UK and Irish commercial fishing sector, subscribe to Fishing News here or buy the latest single issue for just £3.50 here

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