Recapturing Ghost Nets

Latest update July 3, 2019 Started on October 23, 2018

Using an aerial UAV and a Trident OpenROV to locate ghost fishing gear from marine systems for removal & recycling.

October 23, 2018
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I’m really happy to announce the next step for the project- we’re going to Myanmar!

We will be conducting surveys for discarded fishing nets and other ghost gear in collaboration with the Myanmar Ocean Project and Global Ghost Gear Initiative!

The build-up of lost and discarded fishing gear in Myanmar has resulted has had. These nets drift along the sea floor until they get tangled on reefs and seamounts where they pose a threat to wildlife until they degrade- which can literally take centuries. A lot of these nets are accumulating at relatively shallow depths, which gives us the opportunity to test out the technique, using an aerial drone and a SoFar Trident OpenROV, we will be surveying the seafloor, from above and below, to find and remove the gear.

As a bit of background to the project, my section of the project is funded by the University of Aberdeen’s Industry Fellowship Scheme from the department of Research and Innovation. This is an initiative aimed at linking up researchers with industrial partners, to foster collaboration and get some applied output from scientists working real world issues. We will be working with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative and Ocean Conservancy and The Myanmar Ocean Project, in collaboration with National Geographic.

Global Ghost Gear Initiative is an international organisation, focused on mobilising local people to remove discarded fishing gear and encourage responsibility of the fishing industry to dispose of waste gear safely, for the benefit of the marine environment and livelihoods of coastal communities. GGGI is a program of the Ocean Conservancy, an organisation focused on protecting marine environments from not only discarded fishing gear, but all the problems currently facing it, and mobilising scientists and local communities to protect the sea.

This project is based in the Myeik Archipelago, where the Myanmar Ocean Project, coordinated by Thanda Ko Gyi, who observed this issue for the past few years and recently started efforts to remove the debris from local reefs. Thanda is a professional diver and has been working for the Myanmar Ocean Project and Marine Megafauna Foundation. Her work in the region is inspiring local communities to change how the way they dispose of fishing nets and raise awareness about the issue of plastic pollution as a whole, as well resulting in the removal of literally tons of ghost gear from reefs!

I will be assisting her work in the region, with aim of seeing how useful robots are in making the search for marine debris more efficient. We’ll be flying a drone over the reef at very low altitude to find discarded nets in shallow water. We will use the Trident ROV to conduct transects in deeper areas, and developing capacity for this work to continue this surveying work once my three-month field season finishes. In theory, ROVs and drones will allow us to find the nets before we scuba dive to remove them, so we can spend the precious time we have underwater at the exact location we are needed.

I’ll follow up with more information about our fieldwork plans and the project partners, but for now- we have a plan, and I couldn’t be more excited to work with these incredible people and contribute to a really worthwhile project, in such a beautiful and enigmatic country.

You can learn more about the work by Thanda and the Myanmar Ocean Project on the blog:

All photos by Thanda Ko Gyi (Myanmar Ocean Project)

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First Dip!

Apologies for the delay! We’ve been quiet on the website, but very active behind the scenes! There's some big news coming soon (stay tuned!) but last weekend we had our first in sea test of the OpenROV!

In collaboration with Sherece Thompson, a Marine Conservation MSc students from the University of Aberdeen, we took out the ROV to Cromarty Lighthouse field station & tested the robot in the sea! We had been chatting about the potential for using the ROV to study her focal species- the Harbour Seal. She wanted to understand what they actually do when they’re underwater near their haul out site, as little is known about this behaviour, so the ROV seemed like a plausible way of getting there.

Previously we had tested it in a shallow loch & the small pond of a park in Aberdeen. This was fun, but didn’t give us the chance to really test the speed & manoeuvrability of the ROV, as we only had a few feet of water to work with, I was itching to test this in the sea. I arrived in Cromarty & we chatted about the potential for the ROV over coffee, getting increasingly excited as we went over all the things we could try to see, like seals, flatfish, soft coral, crustaceans, & dolphins! But we were most excited by the fact that we didn’t know what we would find. The water is cold, & apart from the occasional adrenaline-fuelled dip in the cold water, I had never spent much time underwater in Scotland, & we really didn’t know what to expect.

We set up the ROV on the shore, stumbled out into the water & dropped it in. The first images emerged on the screen and we saw the surprisingly vibrant surfaces of kelp & stones. Sherece sent the ROV forward, quickly getting the gist of the controls, but the seaweed was a bit too thick close to the shore. With a better idea of where to launch from, we picked things up & walked up to the harbour. Standing at the top of the wall, we could see we were in the right position.

The water was deep & a bit murky so we weren’t sure what we would find. We dropped the ROV in & got it under surface in a few seconds. For the first few minutes we couldn’t see anything and didn’t know where we were in the column. Then something orange flashed, and the sea bottom raced up to meet us. The colours burned out of seaweed wedges on the bottom, & we literally gasped about all the things that were revealing themselves! We could see crabs, (one actually chasing the ROV!), bright orange starfish, amazing pink and white sea urchins & a scattering of shells across the bottom.

We started the dive at 14.30 and it wasn’t until 16.30 that we realised any time had passed. Every moment we were flying we were just glued to the screen, watching it glide over the sea bottom and scanning every frame for evidence of life. The funny thing about using the ROV, is you start standing up straight, piloting the robot by the controls on the screen, but rapidly you end up crouched over, trying to get closer & closer to the action, until you are completely craned in, clawing yourself closer and closer in.

After we hauled the ROV back from the first flight, Sherece paused the video & stretched, looking almost bewildered after being so sucked into the experience. She looked around & laughed- “It feels like I’m underwater!” It really did. It actually feels a bit disorienting once you’ve spent a few minutes glued to the tumbling perspective, bouncing again the sand, whirling up storms of particles & backing up as fast as we can once we find something on the bottom.

We straightened ourselves out, popped it back in the sea and kept going. Finally, when it was too dark to keep going, we hauled the ROV out & stumbled back to the house. We were stunned by how much we had seen & couldn’t wait to see what we had found. This was going to be interesting.

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Nice to read about your first time with the ROV in the water! Im hoping for one too to do some surveying of the flame shells reefs in Lochcarron as well as looking for dredger damage in other areas around Scotland, so am very interested to read about ease of use etc of the Trident. Good luck getting to grips with yours and also for finding lots of junk to remove! If you need any divers assistance for anything, let me know...Im located in NE Scotland too, so not far. :)

First dive!

Julien and I drove out to Loirston Loch, just outside of Aberdeen to give the Trident a go. The ROV had just arrived a couple days before and we were itching to give it a go, even debating just trying it out in the bath tub! The Loch was a far cry from the tropical waters I plan to deploy the ROV, but the closest decent body of water to us, so we were excited to see what we could find.

When we arrived there were a couple birdwatchers observing the lake, who watched in quiet bemusement as we set up the little submarine. The great thing about the Trident, is unless you know what you're looking at, it’s hard to tell that it’s a submersible robot, being so far removed from tanky little machines we've come to recognise as submarines.

In Scotland, Aberdeen in particular, ROVs are thought of as the pickup truck-sized robots that are sent down thousands of metres to repair pipelines in the local oil industry. When we told the onlookers what it was they couldn't believe it, and as we hooked up the cable and connected the app, to be honest, neither could we.

With so little preparation necessary it was odd that we could just pop it into the water. It was a new robot, so I made sure we had followed the instructions and tried to take it slowly, the first time I flew a drone, I cracked a propeller and flew it into a field of sheep, so I was keen to avoid disaster wit first aquatic drone.

We plonked it into the water and Julien sent it forward, the little spluttered on the surface, churning up a steady stream of bubbles. Once it was just a bit under the water it levelled out and remained at a consistent depth in the water column. We could see the pondweeds and little nicks of silver as curious fishes darted out of the way. I could feel the excitement in my knees as the ROV went further out. It reminded me of when I saw the first footage from a drone flight over a tropical forest; there was so much yet to be seen and we had the tools for a beautiful new perspective.

We sent it out into the water and learned quickly to keep hold of the WiFi transmitter before it slipped into the water. I read after that people have made a lanyard to keep the module to tie it to the boat or jetty, which sounds like a very handy idea.

We took it until the end of the 25 m tether and turned it around, I flipped on the lights and could see the beams emerge in the centre of the lake. As it came closer, little lights peeking out from soily depths, it brought with it all new feelings of nostalgia and excitement, looking like some strange and fantastic offspring of Thunderbirds, The Life Aquatic and a Björk music video.

We dived around the lake until our fingers were frozen in the winter and then hauled it out to see the video. It was a great first dive, and I can’t wait for the next one. It’s going to extremely handy in finding fishing debris and I can’t wait to test it in some warmer water!

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It's a super looking project Sol. Good luck! Fishing debris causes so much destruction in our seas and the more we can do to reduce it the better. If we are successful in our Trident application we'll be monitoring for fish nesting areas but might also come across ghost nets aswell that we can either remove ourselves or report to GhostFishingUK if a more experienced team is needed. Please follow our Black Bream Project to see how we get on and support our application. I look forward to seeing your stories from the field in due course! Cheers, Matt

We have an ROV!!

Really happy to announce that our application for an OpenROV Trident has been successful and we will be receiving an ROV soon! This is very exciting to me because I have always to do marine research using an ROV, and I'm very happy to be part of this movement to make ocean and aquatic exploration open and inclusive.

Thanks OpenROV and National Geographic and thanks to everyone following this project!

I can't wait to start using our new robot to tackle the issue of Ghost Fishing and share our progress!


Excited to see the videos and what you do with the Trident. Great job, Sol!

Really excited for you regarding the Trident ROV, they look like an amazing tool.

In addition to surveying with them, do you have any plans for adapting them to assist in the recovery of nets from deeper locations?

Felicitaciones! cuando consigamos el nuestro les vamos a pedir consejos de uso.

David- thanks a lot! Its great fun to use, really quick once it gets underwater, and so different from a drone- connection always good and it can't crash! Thanks for the great tech, looking forward to many more dives!

Tim- yes, I'm curious about whether arms can be attached so that inflating bags can be used to raise sunken nets- but it depends on whether done it less time by a diver, however if its at very deep depths like 50 m +, it would be very useful.

Felipe- ¡Por favor, hazlo! Todavía estoy aprendiendo a usarlo y es muy divertido, ¡pero estoy ansioso por probarlo en el mar!

Why do we need an ROV?

This project will use a Trident Open ROV (Remote Operated Vehicle) to conduct the sub-marine surveys. In the same way aerial drones have given terrestrial ecologists an incredible advantage in recent years, this kind of accessible ROV technology to really change the landscape for marine ecology and biology.

Even though we can swim and scuba dive, this piece of kit will be extremely handy. An ROV can stay submerged for up to 3 hours, which is two hours advantage on a human, easily, and can dive way, WAY deeper than we can- (up to 100 m!) but the advantage of having an ROV do these dives in search of ghost nets brings another, bigger advantage- you.

If you've been scuba diving, you have probably had the experience of scrambling to describe something you saw- it can seem like a blur once it’s over, and can be a struggle to recall the minutia of what you saw on the reef. This is the beauty of diving, as it’s such a fantastic place to be, it can be a sensory overload- it is for me anyway.

With an ROV, we will be able to record everything we see, and can go back and review any frame we think we saw something in. We can be much more thorough than possible during a brief scuba trip and actually be able to document what we see during the dive.

The great thing about using an ROV is the fact that you can get involved. We’ll be doing line transects- a method of survey in which we follow a specific bearing, and using an estimate for visibility to the left and right, can survey a large area thoroughly. This will save both time and money, as we can survey a very large area, and only dive once we have visual confirmation of a Ghost Net on the sea floor. When we do find the net, we only have to follow the ROV's remote control tether to lead us directly to the debris! We will then post our footage online and you can strengthen our survey by providing your observations and pointing out any debris we might have missed.

Also, how amazing will it be to see a landscape from this unique perspective? The Trident ROV is much smaller than a person and will probably be less disturbing to wildlife, giving us an opportunity to see some amazing stuff. Independent of the difference this work can make, its going to be an amazing experience. When I scuba dive I can only stay under for just under an hour (depending on the depth), and I’ve seen some incredible stuff in that short space of time- can you image what we’ll get to see, with three hours of search time, a high definition camera and 100 m maximum depth?! I’m very excited.

Here are a few samples of footage from the Trident Open ROV, and I can’t wait to use this perspective to bring to light the global issue of Ghost Fishing.


Congratulations on getting a Trident ROV :-) You guys are doing great work.

Michelle- thanks a lot, I'm really looking forward to testing it out in the sea!

Robert- its amazing, I think it was filmed by David Lang and OpenROV team.

What will happen to the nets?

This is something we're working on, how to effectively recycle all the nylon from the nets collected. Fortunately, we can draw from the experience and inspiration of other organisations currently working to solve this problem.

The Zoological Society of London (ZSL) has a project called Net-Works, a multi- faceted and community- oriented approach to reducing marine plastic waste. This project, currently based in the Philippines, Cameroon and Indonesia, is based around collecting waste nets, particularly from areas of high biodiversity, where these nets can cause lasting damage to marine ecosystems. These nets are converted into nylon yarn, used to make carpet tiles for commercial use. You can learn more about this fascinating project here:

Bureo is a company focused on reducing marine plastic waste by collecting and converting into recyclable forms. Based in Chile, the project is focused mainly on collecting fishing nets and lines, and converting this plastic into a form that could be used for future products, including skateboard decks! In the first six months of the project alone, they collected a 3 tons of fishing nets from the coasts, which is a testament to the scale of this issue.

The 'Healthy Seas' foundation is a group of organisations around the world focused collecting marine litter and upcycling it into forms that can be used in the clothing and carpeting. This organisation gives a lot of information on where the plastic is coming from, and how their work is benefiting the environment and local communities, as well as the commercial stakeholders.

The main thing I take away from the multitude of projects and people involved in this effort to repair our own damage on marine ecosystems, is that not only can this work have a tangible impact on the environment, but we are collecting waste which still has economic value. As with the oil palm and commercial timber industries, sustainability has a vital role to play in corporate responsibility, and reassessment of current practices is an essential part of that process.

Providing consumers with a context to these environmental issue allows them to decide for themselves where to shop and by doing so, vote with their wallets in order to discourage our culture of disposability and show that even our waste has value. We are hoping this project will enable us to find marine plastic in less obvious places, such as further out to see, and from perspectives only visible from an aerial drone, and underwater the Trident ROV, to not only effectively remove this waste, but to show you how far the problem reaches.

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What this all about?

Discarded fishing nets drift until they stop. They sink and get snagged on coral reefs or get carried on the surface with other marine debris and plastic waste, until they eventually reach the shore. Nets are generally made of a nylon filament which can take up to a hundred years to degrade. This means that unless we find and remove them, they will snag animals along the way. This is known as ‘ghost- fishing’.

From fish to turtles, to marine mammals, nets are completely indiscriminate in what they catch and will continue to until they fall to pieces. If an animal is lucky, it will pull itself loose, or squeeze through gaps in the mesh. But in most cases, it will get caught, and struggle until it severs a limb and escapes, or gets more tangled, and drowns. It is estimated that a net would need about 300 years to break down fully.

It is estimated that 640’000 tons of discarded fishing nets remain in our seas today, responsible for the deaths of millions of marine animals per year, including turtles, dolphins, whales, seals, bony fish, sharks, rays and even birds.

I plan to use drones- aerial AND marine- to find these ghost nets and remove them from the environment.

I scuba dive a lot, and have found nets caught in reefs before. But consider that my line of sight is only 20 m under water and I probably travel less than a kilometre during one dive. This means I can only search about 0.036 km2 underwater, and then I have to go to the surface, decompress and plan the next dive. It’s not very efficient.

With drones, I can survey 1.5 km2 aerially, find out where nets are likely to get caught and search for traces of them in images from shallow waters. This information can also be used to to determine where these nests are coming from, in order to reduce this problem in the future.

With the Trident OpenROV, I can conduct line transects and search the seafloor, and cover more area than I could in hundreds of hours of diving! This ROV can travel up to 100 m deep, and can continue for up to 3 hours, and record high definition video.

Naturally, the deeper the water, the harder it is to see to the bottom. In drone images we are therefore likely to see less the farther out to sea we go. However, using a combination of aerial and aquatic robots, we can get the full picture; we can spot what may be nets from the surface and dive with Trident to record what’s there. Trident gives us the opportunity to search underwater without having to scuba dive each time- which makes the process far more efficient- as we will only need to dive when we find ghost nets needing removal.

I have spent the last few years using drones to survey the rainforest canopy in Borneo, looking for Orangutan nests. A change in perspective is a very powerful tool in understanding how multifaceted our world is, and I was blown away when I first flew over the forest in the early morning. Being able to begin this process again-underwater, fills me with excitement, and I’m looking forward to using this tool to bring attention to the issues facing reefs, by giving people the opportunity to scan the seafloor, from the point of view of a submarine robot.

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While snorkelling or scuba diving, you can find a lot of trash. Plastic bags, bottles and nets accumulate near the shore and we often see them when we swim. It’s vital that we remove this when we run into it, but it may not be a very efficient method for removing larger pieces of waste, or plastic waste accumulation.

We will use an aerial drone to survey sections of coast kilometre by kilometre, in order to locate dangerous plastic waste: fishing nets discarded by the fishing industry. By conducting flights along the coast, we can find these nets along stretches of coast and develop targeted methods for their removal.

Once we find the nets in drone images, we plan to use a Trident OpenROV to investigate the area underwater, in order to see how extensive the damage to the reef system, and to determine how we will remove the net safely.

This method will allow us to search across large areas for this hazard to wildlife, and investigate the damage before we scuba dive or free dive to remove it.

We hope that this project will also allow us to understand how pervasive the problem of ghost nets is, where they tend to accumulate, how we can recycle the material and bring publicity to this issue.

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Thanks Charles, hoping to do some fieldwork soon!

Expedition Background

We are planning to use aerial and submarine drones to find fishing nets, discarded or lost, commonly known as ghost nets, that persist as a threat to the marine environment.
Fishing net, made primarily of nylon, can take decades to decay, and pose a threat to fish and other marine wildlife that can become tangled and drown. We are planning to find these nets in aerial images, and use ROVs to determine how to remove the debris we find.


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