Off the coast of Thailand, a team of divers are trying to unravel a mass of fishing nets wrapped around a fragile reef, an operation intended to protect marine life but also to fight against the coronavirus. The “ghost nets” thrown by the powerful local fishing industry are a deadly source of plastic pollution, trapping turtles or damaging the delicate coral beds in the Gulf of Thailand. If nothing is done, these nets “could remain adrift for decades. They capture marine animals or become their food“Ingpat Pakchairatchakul, from the Foundation for Environmental Justice (EJF), told AFP.
Ingpat supports the divers of the Net free seas project, which aims to recover used nets and to recycle the plastic they contain. In this case, the nets will be used to make face shields and other anti-Covid-19 items. Those responsible for this initiative want to prove that marine protection can be commercially viable in Thailand, one of the largest producers of ocean litter in the world.
Two years ago, an event sparked public outrage when a baby dugong, an endangered species, named Mariam died from an infection caused by plastic found in her stomach. The Thais had spent months following live on the internet the efforts of veterinary teams to try to cure and save the animal.
Mariam is one of more than 20 large dead or injured marine animals found stranded on Thailand’s coast every year, according to Chaturathep Khowinthawong, director of the kingdom’s marine park management agency. “More than 70 percent of them are injured by ghost nets and have deep cuts in the body“, he said.”Once blocked, their chances of survival are less than 10%.”
“The more I pick up, the more the current sends me back”
Net Free Seas recovered 15 tonnes of abandoned fishing nets in seawater during its first year of operation. Globally, FAO estimates that 640,000 tonnes of lost or discarded fishing gear ends up in the oceans each year.
In the Gulf of Thailand, some local fishermen say they support the project. “It’s a win-win situation“Somporn Pantumas, a fisherman from the port city of Rayong, told AFP.a new source of income, the beach and the sea are clean and the fishermen find a sense of camaraderie.”
The 59-year-old is one of 700 members of Thailand’s fishing communities who sell their used nets back to the program, instead of throwing them in the water. Somporn says his nets often haul more plastic debris than fish. And “the more I pick up, the more the current sends me new ones …“, he despairs.
The collected nets are sent to be washed, shredded, mixed with other plastics discarded and then melted at Qualy Design, an SME specializing in the molding of recycled household items. They are used to make face shields, hydroalcoholic gel sprays, or table divider screens that have been widely used in restaurants in Bangkok and its region since the start of the pandemic.
The company has even invented little gadgets that allow you to operate an elevator or withdraw money without touching buttons with your fingers and therefore without risk of infection.
Compared to other materials, fishing nets are the most difficult to work with and the most expensive, company marketing director Thosphol Suppametheekulwat told AFP. “But we jumped on it because we wanna help save the ocean“, he says.