‘Ghost’ Hunting in Gal Oya
By Risidra Mendis
Every year they are abandoned. While some sink into the water, others float around, get caught in the waves and are blown away. Everywhere they go they cause harm, death, and destruction to innocent living creatures. Ghost fishing nets is the best way to describe them. Abandoned by fishermen after their fishing is done, these damaged and torn nets are left behind by the fishermen, who have no idea what serious damage they pose to the marine life and the environment.
Countless animals from fish and turtles to crocodiles, birds and even pangolins are trapped and most often die with no escaping from these ghost nets, lying sometimes on land and sometimes in water, waiting for their next victim to come along. The Senanayake Samudraya with an extent of over 5,500 acres, like many other water areas, faced a similar situation where dead animals and birds – victims of the abandoned ghost fishing nets – were seen.
Recently, the Wildlife and Nature Protection Society (WNPS) decided to get involved and exorcise these ‘ghosts’ out of Senanayake Samudraya. “The WNPS have district representatives around the country. The District Representative at Gal Oya does awareness programmes, environment programmes and checks on what is going on in the area. They check on anything useful they feel they can do in the area. These abandoned nylon nets have been there for a long time,” Jehan Canagaratne said.
Fishing permits given
He said the fishermen have been given permits to fish in the Senanayake Samudraya and if the nets are damaged and torn the fishermen don’t bother to pull them out. “The freshwater fish that they catch they use to make dry fish. In the last year and a half with the water in the Senanayake Samudraya receding these nylon nets are coming out. At its peak the water level at the reservoir can go up to 100 feet. This is a huge tank. When the water recedes during the dry season it comes down to about 20 or 10 feet in some areas,” Canagaratne explained.
The nets, he said, get entangled in the trees that are now visible due to the water levels receding and become death traps for flying birds. “This is a death trap for mammals too. A part of the Senanayake Samudraya has a fair amount of waves. These nets get caught in the waves and roll around. Crocodiles have got trapped in these nets and haven’t been able to move and died. When the water recedes the nets get caught on the ground on the bank of the Senanayake Samudraya.
Then the wild boar piglets and the other animals that come to the bank and walk towards the water get tangled in these nets when they get spooked and start running,” Canagaratne said. “This problem had become a bigger issue this year according to the District Representative there. He asked me if we can get these nets cleared, I said yes but that we can’t do it every year and we have to find another solution. We need to talk to the fishermen and see what the reason behind this is,” Canagaratne explained.
Three day project
Nevertheless the WNPS managed to collect the funds needed and work started at the Senanayake Samudraya on 10, 11, and 22 September 2021. Over a period of three days 10 people, including the District Representative, cleared whatever they could of these destructive nets. “I got in touch with a life member of WNPS residing in New Zealand and asked him if he can find some funds. He found the funds from people living in UK, USA, Australia, and New Zealand.
On the first day we went in two boats and I joined them. We gave them a daily wage and paid for the motor boats. We managed to clear 75 per cent of the nets. There are more nets underwater and you need divers to clear that,” Canagaratne said. He said that the WNPS had a chat with the fishermen union leaders. “These nets are about Rs 12,000 per nylon net. We asked them if they are making that much money to just leave these nets and go.
In some instances they may be getting the nets free of charge. When they get it free they don’t care. But some fishermen buy the nets. We told them if you are earning Rs 25,000 per month for selling fish you can save the Rs 12,000 if you take the net with you. But they didn’t seem to understand, as their educational level is at a very low level and it doesn’t bother them. Once the lockdown is over we are looking at how we can buy back those nets,” Canagaratne explained.
Buying back the nets
Canagaratne’s plan is to tell the fishermen if the nets are broken and torn and they can’t fix it the WNPS will buy it back from them. “Money talks. We can buy these nets from them by the kilo. But we have to find the money. I have got in touch with one or two countries abroad. There are people who use polythene nets for recycling but not nylon. So I’m looking for a place that will take nylon nets for recycling.
My end goal is to have a discussion with the fishermen once things slowdown from a pandemic point of a view,” Canagaratne said. According to Canagaratne the fishermen have shown interest in this new plan by the WNPS and said they will bring back the nets. “According to our calculations every two months we can get about a lorry load of nylon nets.
After about a year or two after we have started this project whatever is in there will also come out and we can do a proper clean out,” Canagaratne explained. The project will protect the lives of many species of local wildlife and the WNPS also hopes to carry out workshops with the local fishing communities to educate them on the dangers of irresponsibly discarding fishing gear in and around the water.