Meet Hong Kong’s ‘ghost net hunter’ who saves the city’s marine life
Ghost nets, or ghost gear, are abandoned or lost fishing equipment. They float in the ocean, trapping and killing wildlife, clinging to boats, and even threatening divers.
A local diver saw the problem and decided to take matters into their own hands.
Harry Chan, a self-proclaimed “ghost net hunter”, has spent the past decade hauling abandoned fishing nets out of the ocean. The 68-year-old retired businessman said his mission was to clean up the surrounding waters and Hong Kong coastline.
“If we don’t take care of the environment and the ocean, we won’t have another,” Chan says.
What is phantom equipment?
It’s a huge problem for marine life as well as humans, says Laurence McCook, director of oceans for WWF Hong Kong.
Ghost net hunting
Once Chan locates a net, removing it can take three to eight hours and is dangerous and exhausting work. But Chan, who has been diving since 1987 with more than 3,000 dives to date, is an obsessive passion – and his brush with death in pursuit of his goal hasn’t deterred him.
“A few times I almost got killed, got tangled up,” he says. “Fortunately, I was able to be freed by my friends.”
Over the years, Chan has assembled a small team of rotating volunteers who help him in his mission to clean up the waters of Hong Kong. Equipped with scuba diving equipment, the team will set off on a boat in search of stray ghost nets.
When they find one – which can be tricky with the poor visibility of Hong Kong water – they use a knife or scissors to free the trapped marine life or unravel it from rocks, coral or seabed where it can be captured.
Depending on the size and weight of the net and its depth, a small floating device can help lift the net to the surface. Typically, Chan participates in these dives twice a month and arranges beach and shore cleanups.
Over the years, Chan estimates that he has collected over 80 tons of phantom gear by hand with his group of volunteers, and says he is determined to continue hunting down this “silent killer.”
“As a diver, there is so much we can do to protect and save the ocean,” he says.
“Detective Ghost Gear”
While “local heroes” like Chan do a great job collecting ghost nets, the potential dangers to the most experienced divers cannot be overstated, says McCook of WWF Hong Kong.
“A net is designed to catch things underwater, and that’s great for that,” he says. “It’s remarkably easy to get tangled up, and at the end of the day we’re underwater – we have a limited supply of air.”
This is why WWF Hong Kong has developed a “Ghost Gear Detective” program.
The Citizen Science Initiative invites recreational divers and boaters to record the location of ghost equipment on a waterproof slate using a portable, floating GPS device to identify coordinates. This information is reported via an app once they are back on dry land.
Since the program’s launch in 2019, WWF Hong Kong says 244 pieces of phantom equipment have been identified, based on 225 reports – and nearly 600 pounds of equipment have been removed.
“The value of collecting data is not just removing it, but this database then puts the government and ourselves in a position to understand the extent and nature of the problem – which is essential for finding solutions. “, explains McCook.
Tagging and tracking
While cleaning up this ghost gear is essential, it is essential to prevent fishing gear from ending up in the ocean in the first place.
Creating incentives for fisheries and fishermen to keep their nets well maintained and recycle them properly could help “prevent the deliberate and accidental loss of nets,” says McCook.
Ghost nets are also often “strongly associated with illegal fishing,” he adds, so governments need to ensure that maritime police and conservation agencies have “the resources and the means to be able to operate. able to effectively apply the legislation in an active and responsible manner “.
Chan hopes that improving government policies will eliminate the “root cause” for future generations. And while the scale of the problem can be daunting at times, he says as long as there are ghost nets in the ocean, he will keep diving.
“I’m in my sixties, I have all the time I want to do what I want to do – and as a diver I think it’s time for me to really contribute to the community,” Chan said. “Age is just a number. There is 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.