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Off Panama’s coast, divers resurrect a ‘ghost’ of the deep

© Ramon Lepage

Editor’s note: Edgardo Ochoa was scouting for dive training sites in Panama Bay in 2000 when he made a troubling discovery. Nearly two decades later, as a marine safety officer for Conservation International (CI), he was able to do something about it. This is his story.

Back in 2000, as a unit diving officer at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama City, I was always looking for spots to train my divers. This search took me all over Panama Bay — sometimes to places with absolutely no value in terms of dive training, but sometimes to great sites.

One of the good ones is near Otoque Island, about 43 kilometers (27 miles) southwest of Panama City, with great underwater topography — boulders, cracks, crevices, a few short tunnels and a 24-meter (80-foot) wall — and a wealth of fish, sponges and corals. It was a healthy ecosystem and a perfect training site.

On my first exploration there, though, I found something I never wanted to find.

A huge, abandoned fishing net had come to rest on the seafloor, smothering a considerable portion of the rocky reef.

So-called “ghost nets” are commercial fishing nets that have been abandoned at sea, either lost or deliberately discarded. Carried by currents or tides, they traverse the world’s oceans, snaring fish as they drift. These ghost nets do not discriminate, capturing endangered species (such as sea turtles), all manner of small fish — and no end of marine debris.

The ocean represents a vital source of income for Panama’s coastal people; unfortunately, we also have some problems under the water. Pollution is a problem — fishing nets, lines, hooks and ballast weights are often found by divers in many reefs in the region.

The phenomenon of “ghost fishing” — what happens when derelict fishing gear continues to “fish,” was first brought to the attention of the world at the 16th Session of the Committee on Fisheries of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization in 1985. This gear is still tangling and killing marine life, smothering habitats and even posing a hazard to navigation — relevant in this region due to heavy ship traffic through the Panama Canal.

Throughout the 2000s, I continued to use Otoque Island for training, scientific collections and photographs. I also started plotting a way to take this massive, unwanted net out of the water. Time passed, things changed, and I accepted a position with Conservation International. My work took me to projects all over the globe, but always in the back of my mind was my hope to to go back to Panama and get rid of that net.

  • WATCH THE VIDEO: Scroll down to see divers removing the “ghost net.”

When CI opened a new office in Panama, I knew it was the perfect opportunity to pursue my pet project. With CI’s support, I reached out to people I know in the private sector and government to gather feedback and assistance.

The plan began with recruitment of a local NGO and government agencies: Autoridad de los Recursos Acuaticos de Panama (ARAP), Ministerio de Ambiente (MiAmbiente) and Servicio Aeronaval de Panama (SENAN).

Last year, I traveled to Panama, met with our newly formed Ghost Net Removal Team and explained the plan. The team took a few exploratory dives, planned logistics and shared concerns. On our last dive, I cut off a little piece of the net and hung it on my whiteboard back at CI headquarters as a constant reminder of the plan.

The big day

Panama celebrates Mes de los Oceanos (Ocean Month) in September, with four weeks of events related to the oceans, conservation, marine science and public awareness — so taking the net out in September seemed fitting.

The day came — Sept. 9 — and a team of crew and divers including myself set out to Otoque. As we sailed, a few whales in the distance raised our hopes of success.

After gearing up, we jumped in, and there it was.

Removing an immense, heavy net is not easy — you can’t just rip the whole thing out in one try or you’ll risk potentially doing more damage to the reefs. Also, you can’t just drag it away with a boat; the team had to use inflatable “lift bags” to elevate sections of the net off the reef.

It was arduous work: Exploring and filming sections first; cutting and pulling sections of the net; adding air to the lift bag; and communicating with the other divers to avoid any of us from being ensnared in the net itself.

Finally — nearly two decades after the net was discovered there — we managed to raise a portion of it to the surface. We repeated this same operation at least three more times before having to change our scuba tanks.

Flush with the success of our first dive, the second one went even smoother, and we worked to remove nearly the entire net — but we didn’t have enough air to remove the entire thing. We vowed to return in the near future and remove it.

In the end, we extracted 90 percent of the net. After we boarded our boats from our final dive, one of the SENAN divers said, “For the next mission, we need a support boat and more divers.” I was elated — having seen the destruction that this net caused, they were eager to find and remove them entirely.

We aim to monitor the comeback of marine life on this rocky reef, and as more “ghost net” removal efforts gain support from the environmental ministry and other partners, I am hopeful that Panama can lead the way in ridding the ocean of these destructive threats.

Edgardo Ochoa is a marine safety officer at Conservation International.

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Cover image: Edgardo Ochoa wrestles with an abandoned fishing net he helped remove from a reef off Otoque Island, Panama. So-called “ghost nets” can ravage marine habitats for decades. (© Ramon Lepage)

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