A team of environmentalists is turning “ghost nets” into sports nets, giving new life to abandoned fishing gear adrift in the world’s oceans.

The organisation responsible for world volleyball (FIVB) has teamed up with marine conservation group the Ghost Fishing Foundation to launch Good Net. Supported by collaborators like the Healthy Seas initiative, World Animal Protection and Greenpeace, the project is designed to rid the seas of discarded fishing nets, with many becoming recycled into volleyball nets for local community use around the world.

According to United Nations figures, up to 800,000 metric tons of discarded, abandoned or lost fishing nets go adrift in our oceans each year.

Ghost nets are often lost during storms or in strong currents and can drift for many months, even years, entangling fish, seabirds and marine mammals.

Wave of destruction

Drifting fishing gear can travel great distances and can continue to fish long after it has been abandoned. It’s a problem that doesn’t recognise international territorial waters or distinguish between the types of species that become ensnared.

 The Ghost fishing cycle
The ghost-fishing cycle
Image: Elsevier

Some discarded nets become snagged on reefs, choking the coral and killing marine life. Others drift with the ocean current into open water, where they trap fish, turtles and larger mammals like dolphins, seals and whales. In US coastal waters alone, there were 76 large whale entanglements reported in 2017.

Laden with dead marine life, the nets eventually sink to the ocean floor where scavengers feed on the entangled carcasses. After being freed of their ballast, the abandoned nets rise to the surface and resume fishing.

Net impact

Human intervention in removing the nets from our oceans breaks this destructive cycle. And because most modern nets are made of durable synthetic fibres, they can be broken down into nylon yarn, which can be used for any number of new applications.

Some of the nets are repaired using traditional techniques and are turned into volleyball nets for local communities to enjoy. With the circular economy at work in this way, the once hazardous nets play a small part in helping sustainability efforts.

The first sporting event using recycled nets took place on Brazil’s famous Copacabana beach, which was also the setting for the 2016 Rio Olympic Games’ beach volleyball tournament. This was the first of a series of FIVB-endorsed volleyball matches planned for different venues around the globe, which aim to raise awareness of the damage caused to marine life and habitats by abandoned fishing gear.

Nick Mallos, director of the Trash Free Seas programme at Ocean Conservancy, which leads the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, points out that the current situation is a lose-lose for marine life and also for fishermen.

“When there is a large amount of fishing gear out there, it affects fishermen’s bottom lines, it affects the future sustainability of otherwise harvestable catch, and often it prevents fishermen from spending more time on the water,” he states.

The initiative brings together academia, policymakers, private companies and NGOs to tackle the problem of ghost nets.