Meet Hong Kong’s ‘ghost net hunter’ who is saving the city’s sea life


Ghost nets, or ghost gear, are abandoned or lost fishing equipment. They float through the ocean, trapping and killing wildlife, snagging on boats, and even threatening divers.

One local scuba diver saw the problem and decided to take matters into his own hands.

Harry Chan, a self-proclaimed “ghost net hunter,” has spent the last decade hauling abandoned fishing nets out of the ocean. The 68-year-old retired businessman says he is on a mission to clean up Hong Kong’s surrounding waters and coastline.

“If we’re not going to take care of the environment and the ocean, we aren’t going to get another one,” says Chan.

What is ghost gear?

Ghost gear can end up in the ocean by accident, such as being swept away during storms or tearing on rocks, or intentionally discarded, often to cover up evidence of illegal fishing — and it isn’t just a problem in Hong Kong. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 640,000 metric tons of ghost gear goes into the world’s waters every year — the same weight as more than 50,000 double-decker buses — although the Ocean Conservancy, a non-profit advocacy group, says this is a conservative estimate.
According to the World Wildlife Fund, abandoned and discarded fishing gear makes up 10% of the ocean's plastic pollution.
In a 2018 study of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a 1.6 million square kilometer collection of trash that is more than double the size of Texas located in the Pacific Ocean — it was found that more than half of the total plastic mass was from nets, ropes and lines.

This is a huge problem for marine life as well as people, says Laurence McCook, oceans director for WWF Hong Kong.

Scientists are fighting to protect a shark and turtle 'superhighway'
“It’s called ghost gear because it goes on living and creating problems long after it’s actually useful,” says McCook. It is estimated that 136,000 dolphins, seals, turtles, and even whales are killed annually by ghost gear, as well as countless fish and other small marine life.
Ghost gear can reduce fish stocks in some locations by up to 30%, impacting food supplies and fishing industry profits, as well as fish stock recovery and conservation projects.

Hunting for ghost nets

Once Chan locates a net, removing it can take anywhere from three to eight hours, and is dangerous and grueling work. But Chan, who has been diving since 1987 with over 3,000 dives to date, is obsessively passionate — and his brushes with death in pursuit of his goal have not deterred him.

“A couple of times, I almost got killed, being tangled,” he says. “Luckily, I was able to be freed by my buddies.”

Over the years, Chan has built a small team of rotating volunteers who help him on his mission to clean up Hong Kong’s waters. Kitted out in scuba diving gear, the team will go out on a boat in search of stray ghost nets.

Ghost gear also impacts food supplies, reducing fish stocks by up to 30%.

When they find one — which can be tricky with Hong Kong’s poor water visibility — they use a knife or scissors to free marine life trapped in it or untangle it from rocks, coral or the seabed where it may be caught.

Depending on the size and weight of the net and how deep it is, a small floating device can help lift the net to the surface. Typically, Chan goes on these dives twice a month, as well as organizing beach and shoreline cleanups.

Over the years, Chan estimates he has collected more than 80 metric tons of ghost gear by hand with his volunteer group, and says he’s determined to continue hunting this “silent killer.”

“Being a diver, there’s so much we can do to protect and save the ocean,” he says.

‘Ghost Gear Detective’

While “local heroes” like Chan are doing great work collecting ghost nets, the potential dangers to even the most experienced divers cannot be overstated, says McCook of WWF Hong Kong.

“A net is designed to catch things underwater, and it’s very good at doing that,” he says. “It’s remarkably easy to get tangled, and at the end of the day, we’re underwater — we have a limited air supply.”

That’s why WWF Hong Kong has developed a “Ghost Gear Detective” program.

The Ghost Gear Detective program asks amateur divers and water sport enthusiasts to help identify the locations of ghost nets using its GPS-enabled device.

The citizen scientist initiative invites recreational scuba divers and boaters to record the location of ghost gear on a waterproof slate using a portable, floating GPS device to identify the coordinates. This information is reported via an app once they’re back on dry land.

Then, the Hong Kong government’s Agriculture, Fisheries and Conservation Department uses this data to collect the nets safely with a team of expert divers.

Since the program’s launch in 2019, WWF Hong Kong says 244 pieces of ghost gear have been identified, based on 225 reports — and nearly 600 pounds of equipment have been removed.

“The value of collecting the data is not only about removing it, but that database then puts the government and ourselves in a position to understand the magnitude and nature of the problem — which is critical to figuring out solutions,” says McCook.

Tagging and tracking

While cleaning up this ghost gear is essential, stopping fishing gear from ending up in the ocean in the first place is key.

Creating incentives for fisheries and fishermen to keep their nets well maintained and properly recycle them could help “prevent deliberate and accidental loss of nets,” says McCook.

Ghost gear not only ensnares dolphins and fish swimming through the ocean, but also catches on corals and rocks on the seabed, destroying habitats.

Ghost nets are also often “strongly associated with illegal fishing,” he adds, so governments have to ensure that marine police and conservation bodies have “the resources and the means to be able to really enforce the legislation actively and responsibly.”

Tracking technology on fishing gear could also help. Electronic tagging, such as low-cost Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags or coded wire tags could be used to help marine police scan equipment to ensure it comes from legal fisheries.

Chan hopes improved government policies will remove the “root cause” for future generations. And though the size of the problem can sometimes be daunting, he says as long as there are ghost nets in the ocean, he’ll keep diving.

“I’m in my 60s, I’ve got all the time I want to do whatever I want to do — and being a diver, I think it’s time for me to really contribute back to the community,” says Chan. “Age is only a figure. There’s so much we can do, no matter how old you are.”

Clarification: An earlier version of this article stated that 244 pieces of ghost gear have been removed since 2019. This has been changed to clarify that 244 pieces of ghost gear have been identified, not removed.

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