On November 30th, 2020, fishers of Gemanafushi Island in the Maldives were grinning ear to ear after recovering four massive fishing nets from the Indian Ocean while managing to safely release an entangled turtle.

The net retrieval and turtle release were the first major success from the International Pole & Line Foundation’s (IPNLF) collaboration with the Olive Ridley Project (ORP), a partnership that began at the beginning of the year when IPNLF was awarded the World Animal Protection’s first annual Joanna Toole Ghost Gear Solutions Award. This new initiative by IPNLF incentivises coastal fisheries to collect and upcycle lost and abandoned ghost nets they encounter whilst fishing.

A staggering 640,000 tonnes of fishing gear is estimated to be lost or abandoned in the world’s seas annually. Much of this so-called “ghost gear” is made of synthetic materials, and once lost is left floating or suspended in ocean currents over the course of many years. In the Maldives, facilitating the removal of ghost nets has become an essential action due to the rapidly accumulating volumes of fishing nets that are drifting into the nation’s waters after being abandoned, lost or discarded from large-scale commercial fleets and purse seine vessels.

Ghost nets are extremely harmful because they can entangle, suffocate, and kill many forms of marine life, disrupting marine ecosystems. Even though national fishery laws in the Maldives only allow one-by-one fishing, ghost nets from other parts of the Indian Ocean have drifted into Maldivian waters and threatening habitats. According to the award announcement, IPNLF was selected as the first winner “with the aim of incentivising the removal of all ghost fishing gear from the ocean by small-scale tuna fishers”. Immediately after receiving the award in January, IPNLF took several steps to begin working towards this goal.

While it was anticipated that the first ghost nets would be retrieved in April, the impacts of COVID-19 in the Maldives unfortunately delayed those plans. For several months, the data collection had to be put on hold as the fishers learned how to sustain their own health and livelihoods while working within a changing global market.

Due to the long anticipated wait, the retrieval of the first four nets this past month was invigorating and signaled a successful start to the groundbreaking initiative, which both creates safer aquatic ecosystems and brings economic opportunities to Gemanafushi Island locals. After the nets are transported to land and stored in a dedicated facility, the Women’s Development Committee (WDC) of Gemanafushi will take part in processing and upcycling the used fishing gear into products that can be sold for profit to the local tourism industry.

IPNLF are also working with ORP to remotely communicate the best turtle release practices to fishers according to a ORP turtle release protocol.

Despite the difficulties associated with remote capacity building, ORP vets were able to confirm that our first turtle release had been a success! The turtle was released into the ocean unharmed by the disentanglement process, which you can see in this video.

There is no doubt that it will take a considerable amount of hard work and dedication to continue removing ghost nets from Maldivian waters. Abandoned ghost nets in the Maldives originate from drifting Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) used by industrial tuna purse seine vessels operating in the Indian Ocean and gillnet fisheries operating in the Northern Arabian sea. These nets often weigh upwards of 80kg and it can take the manpower of an  entire vessel crew to draw a single net from the water. However, the environmental benefits associated with net retrieval have proved an effective incentive for the fishers of Gemanafushi Island.

The fishers of Gemanafushi are setting an excellent example of what a truly sustainable tuna fishery should look like. Not only do they use pole-and-line, a one-by-one fishing method with low environmental impacts that contributes to local food security and economic development in coastal communities, but they are also helping address the negative environmental impacts of other tuna fishers that use less sustainable fishing methods. With thousands of abandoned nets in the Indian Ocean, IPNLF anticipate that these are the first of many nets to be recovered in the months to come and the new year!