What's the worst thing about diving

"One of the most terrifying aspects of ghost fishing is what is known as the death cycle."

The Healthy Seas initiative was launched in 2013 to combat the phenomenon of ghost fishing, which is responsible for the unnecessary death of marine animals. Healthy Seas collects ghost nets and ensures they are recycled as a valuable resource through cleanups with volunteer divers and by working with stakeholders in the fishing sector to reduce marine litter.

The job of divers is difficult and dangerous, and visibility is often poor, for example in the North Sea. Every year from February to December, Healthy Seas focuses on its diving assignments, which always depend on the weather. The diving teams consist of volunteers who work with great passion - in the summer months there is sometimes a diving assignment every weekend.

A group of divers can recover up to 300 kg of ghost nets in a day. Pascal van Erp, the diving coordinator at Healthy Seas, explains how these missions work:

In most cases, fishermen and other divers will tell us where ghost nets are.

Pascal van Erp

How did you come to HEALTHY SEAS?

Our team has been diving at shipwrecks for many years. Fishing nets are most often caught at such dive sites and are therefore lost to the fishermen. Our team took the initiative and organized purge dives with fellow like-minded divers. That, in turn, caught the attention of the founders of the Healthy Seas initiative, who offered us to put the fishing nets that we recovered to a useful purpose. Removing the nets requires great precision and is not without risk, which is why we only work with a well-trained team. The members all know each other very well and they all follow very strict technical diving standards and procedures to ensure maximum safety.

How do you know where networks are located?

Unfortunately, this question is very easy to answer: nets can be found on all underwater objects, be it a wreck, a stone or a reef. They get caught on everything that protrudes from the sandy seabed. In most cases, fishermen and other divers will tell us where ghost nets are.

Where and how often do you dive?

We dive all over Europe and every weekend, weather conditions allow. For example, a regular North Sea dive in our own country (the Netherlands) includes two dives per day, precisely in backwaters (changing tides). There is a period of six hours between the backwater phases. We dive with a team of 6–12 divers who are all equally trained and work in the same way so that we can react quickly to any problems that may arise underwater.

What motivates you to keep going?

Ghost fishing is a huge problem that gets bigger every day. It is estimated that 640,000 tonnes of fishing equipment is left behind in the seas and oceans through loss or deliberate disposal each year. Every time we dive we come across new fishing gear left in the water. As a team, we work tirelessly to resolve this issue by taking action and attracting the greatest possible public attention.

Pascal van Erp

Founder of the Ghost Fishing Foundation - Technical Diver

One of the most terrifying aspects of ghost fishing is what is known as the death cycle.

Pascal van Erp

Why is it so important to stop ghost fishing?

One of the most terrifying aspects of ghost fishing is what is known as the death cycle. Fish and other marine animals get caught in ghost nets and attract larger predators, which then also get caught in the ghost net and continue the cycle.

Most fishing nets are made of plastic that does not decompose and floats forever in the sea, slowly detaching tiny particles - called microplastics - that get into the bodies of fish and ultimately humans.

What are the biggest challenges when trying to get lost fishing gear out of the water? How do you master this?

If fishermen lose their nets in the sea, they can only be removed by highly qualified technical divers who are trained for the job. Unpredictable weather conditions, poor visibility, deep water, but also high costs for filling gas bottles, getting there and renting boats are some of the challenges. The regulatory framework is different in every country, which is also an obstacle for any international initiative such as Healthy Seas.

The divers are very well trained, follow strict rules and act as a team to carry out their work safely and successfully. The other challenges described above are mastered thanks to good preparation and organization as well as reliable local partners.

Rescue also includes rescuing animals. Which experiences are particularly remembered?

When it comes to saving animals, in my experience there is not a single animal that is immune to ghost nets. Unfortunately we find marine animals of all kinds in the nets: sharks, dolphins, seals and also less common animals such as octopus, starfish and even sea cucumbers. We have seen it all and the situation is very worrying.

That summer we found two common stingrays in the Adriatic Sea, one of them was already dead. The other - found on the very last day of diving - got caught in a gill net at a depth of 28 meters and could be freed. We got there just in time - soon he would have been attacked and eaten. The release of the ray was a very special and exciting experience, and the sight of the sting with which it was defending itself made me think for a moment of Steve Erwin. It was a very nice moment to finally see him swim away.