Abandoned fishing nets threaten marine life

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Caught in the seabed and floating aimlessly in the water, this is a hazard.

This fishing net was abandoned and is now catching marine life that crosses its path.

Divers call them “ghost nets” and they have come to remove this one from the water, 25 metres below the surface at Laguna in Dahab.

Marine biologist Abd El Rahman Elmekkawy has been taking these nets out of the water for 15 years and founded I-Dive Tribe, a group which works to improve Egypt’s marine life.

It’s his team that goes beneath the waves to deal with these underwater threats.

“If a net is on the reef it damages the coral and catches fish that are no good to eat. It’s also a hazard for divers going in the water,” he explains.

Sometimes they are too late – this captured seahorse has not survived.

But other fish are luckier and are freed with a few cuts to material trapping them.

Even removing nets can cause damage to the ecosystem.

Divers must be careful if one is lodged in a delicate coral reef, they cut it out little by little.

The team follows a framework for ghost net retrieval set by the organisation Sea Shepherd UK.

It covers technical and safety procedures, but the team has had to adapt it so it will work in Egyptian waters.

Sea Shepherd has been involved in the removal of industrial size nets made from heavy duty materials. In Dahab, fishing remains an artisanal activity. 

“We adapted our own methods accordingly because the type of fishing and types of nets we find here are different. So, the situation here is different and the methods are too,” explains Omar Elshamy, manager of Mirage Dive Club.

Ghost nets don’t exist because they’re recklessly cast aside by fishermen. 

Often, strong winds and underwater currents cause them to drift from their initial locations, and they end up tangled on a reef. 

Here, they catch fish that are not their target species.

Elshamy wants to establish good relations with local fishermen, so they can act quickly when this happens.

“This is to ensure good terms between us, and they can report to us when one of their nets gets caught up and we can go and get it instead of them walking on the reef or killing fish. If we find a net, we can communicate with them and return it to its owner or to someone who needs it to go fishing,” he says.

Saleh Mubarak Gomaa is one of two national park rangers in South Sinai. He cooperates regularly with divers and represents local fishermen. 

“It’s a good idea that the divers remove nets because they have tanks and can loosen the net from the reef. When you have (oxygen) tanks you can remove the net properly,” he says.

Gomaa often removes nets he finds himself.

Many do not meet current regulations, the weave is so tight they catch fish that are too small.

The holes should be wide enough for juvenile fish to escape and only snare mature ones.

“You see this net? The holes can only fit two fingers. These nets are illegal,” demonstrates Gomaa.

He says losing a net to sea drift is a painful expense for fishermen. They can cost around 2,000 Egyptian pounds (approx. $130 US dollars). 

Fishing is a traditional activity for the Bedouin. 

To sustain the ghost net fishing project, cooperation with the local Bedouin fishing community is essential. 

The negative impact of a ghost net will affect both divers and fishermen in the long term. 

Gomaa’s father, Sheikh Mubarak, is a Bedouin elder, who used to be a fisherman. 

In his day, ghost nets did not exist because nets were made from different materials and did less damage. These days, fishing practices have become more intense.

“A long time ago they (fishermen) would drop their nets during the months of June, July and August. And that’s it. And they would only drop one net. A fifteen metre net and it would only catch big fish. But nowadays everyone has at least two nets each,” he says.

On calm days, local Bedouin kids and fishermen all benefit from the quiet sea and go fishing. An activity only they are allowed to do in South Sinai.

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