Our Oceans are Haunted
Nadia Aswani is a Pakistani Marine Zoologist and PADI Instructor passionate about ocean conservation. Having worked as a marine researcher and in the dive industry for several years she is now turning to science communication as the future of conservation. She’s currently completing her masters in Wildlife Filmmaking in the UK, and hopes to join the extraordinary cadre of men and women, telling the stories of our oceans, with the hope of preserving them for future generations.
All images by Alfred Minnaar
The most coveted experience in the career of a marine biologist is the discovery of a new species. The holy grail of science. On one particularly sunny day, diving in the waters of the Andaman Sea, I thought I had found my pot of gold. As I looked below me towards the reef, the creature in question twisted and turned as it coasted along the seabed, scales glimmering in the water. I got my camera ready to document the discovery of a lifetime, but my excitement soon turned to horror, for as I got closer I saw that it wasn’t an animal at all, but a massive fishing net, tangled together and being dragged along by the current, dead fish trapped inside projecting the false glimmer of life.
As a native Pakistani, the coastal city of Karachi is my hometown, and as I got older and more occupied with the marine world, I began to look for a way of being involved in marine conservation in Pakistan. What I found was the Olive Ridley Project (ORP), a UK charity based in Pakistan, working towards fighting the effects ghost fishing gear (lost and abandoned fishing nets). I began volunteering with them in 2017 and this winter I returned home to document their unwavering determination in protecting the oceans.
The people of Karachi are wholly dependent on the fishing industry, which provides an income to more than 400,000 people. Here, the problems presented by ghost fishing gear are as prevalent as ever. Silent killers of the ocean, ghost fishing nets aren’t selective, and all manner of animals including fish, dolphins, porpoises, sharks and seals are ensnared. The biggest casualties of ghost nets in the Indian Ocean are sea turtles, of which five of seven species are present in Pakistani waters. Coastal communities who depend on fishing for their livelihoods are also threatened by ghost gear, as already overfished stocks continue to decline through their detrimental effects.
But there is a distinct gap in environmental education, and the mindsets of people in rural and coastal villages in Sindh haven’t changed in centuries. There’s simply no concept of disposing of rubbish, and certainly no notions in the minds of fishermen of bringing home a broken or dumped net, especially when the plastic they’re made of is so cheap today. Why burden themselves with carrying home a damaged net when they can just throw it ‘away’ in the ocean. This is the mindset ORP are working hard to change.
Their aims are threefold; to educate fishermen on the dangers of ghost gear, to remove ghost nets from the ocean, and to build a net recycling programme that feeds back into the community. As I walked down through the fishing village of Rehmangoth in Southern Sindh, the base of ORP activities in the region, I was met by local villager and ORP Field Coordinator Asif Baloch and Project Coordinator Usman Iqbal. Fisherman turned activist, Asif now acts as a bridge between the project and the fishermen.
Down by the waterfront, the shore was littered with fishing vessels and the beach bustled with fishermen preparing their nets to head out to sea. I was quickly ushered out of the way as a group of men thrust their boat into the water. Asif explained to me that he gives regular talks to the fishermen on the detrimental effects of ghost fishing gear on the environment and on fish stocks, encouraging them to report any nets they lose or abandoned nets they spot while at sea. They’ve cultivated a system by which the fishermen will send Asif a text of the location of any nets they have lost or spotted; a team of ORP divers including Asif then conduct a recovery dive to attempt to remove the net from the ocean.
I was lucky enough to participate in one such recovery dive with the team, and witnessed firsthand just how challenging removing nets from the bottom of the ocean is. As I dropped in with Asif, Usman and two other divers, I was struck by the lack of visibility, just about being able to see the divers 5m away. Asif deftly guided us to the net, and we simultaneously grabbed and pulled, a cloud of particles instantly enveloping us, leaving us unable to see anything. Most of the 180 sq/m net was tangled and wrapped around large sandstone rocks that litter the seabed, and tugging it free was another trial that required all of our efforts. The energy we used meant our air supply depleted fast and furious.
The recovery was rudimentary, without cutting tools or lift bags to send the net easily to the surface, and our final challenge was dragging an extremely heavy net and ourselves, back up. For the recovery to be a success we had to work together as a cohesive team, be prepared for anything, and always anticipate the next move, as we didn’t know what we were going to find until we were at the bottom. We were victorious on the whole, and after two dives our booty included 30kg of rope nets, but with time and air constraints, much was left behind, to be retrieved another day.
The nets we removed were then dried, any entangled dead animals removed, and cleaned with detergents. After the dive, Asif took me into his family’s huts, where a group of women sat working; their contribution to the conservation effort is repurposing the nets into colorful and artistic jewelry to be sold for 500 rupees a pop, with 100% of the profits going directly back to the community. As I sat down to watch them work, they handed me some net to have a go; they could barely contain their giggles as they politely passed my offerings from one to the other to examine. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand their words and they couldn’t understand mine, the common activity that bound us together in laughter was enough to allow us to communicate.
As we drove away from the small but miraculous village, I was awestruck by how a marginalized fishing community with little funds, facilities or formal education were engaged in such a complex and successful conservation operation. Through the removal of more than 4000kg of ghost nets since activities first commenced in 2015, ORP have highlighted how crucial it is to engage local communities that rely on the ocean for survival and have an intimate knowledge of the sea, in marine conservation.