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Phuket Divers Battle Against ‘Ghost Gear’: A Crusade to Save Thailand’s Marine Biodiversity

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In the sun-kissed, azure waters that hug the sandy beaches of Phuket, there unfolds a silent yet gripping underwater saga. Here, beneath the inviting surface, teams of determined divers embark on a critical mission against an invisible adversary dubbed “ghost gear.” This term refers to abandoned fishing equipment—predominantly plastic—that ensnares unsuspecting marine life and smothers vibrant coral reefs, becoming an ever-present threat to the underwater ecosystem.

Caught in a haunting tableau on April 4, 2024, was a star puffer fish, its eyes wide with the shock of entrapment, within the rusting confines of a forsaken fishing cage. This poignant image captured by a Reuters photographer is a stark reminder of a burgeoning crisis beneath the waves off Thailand’s coasts, where ghost gear adds to the escalating scourge of microplastics, threatening marine biodiversity.

The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources in Thailand paints a grim picture, highlighting an alarming upward trend from 20% in 2021 to over 30% by 2023 in the endangerment levels of marine species in the upper Andaman Sea due to plastic pollution. The silent killers—lost or discarded fishing nets, ropes, and cages—continue to lay siege under the sea, not just in Thailand but across the globe, signaling an urgent call to action.

Responding to this clarion call, a coalition of scuba diving aficionados and marine conservationists have rallied together. Their goal? To liberate the reefs from the clutches of ghost gear through meticulously planned cleanup drives. Yet, despite their fervent endeavors, tracking the magnitude of this underwater menace remains an elusive challenge. A shared strategy or comprehensive legislation to curtail or eliminate the dumping of fishing gear is conspicuously absent, stalling the momentum toward lasting solutions.

“Our commitment to retrieving discarded fishing gear is unwavering. With a vibrant scuba diving community and numerous government bodies joining forces, we’re striving to turn the tide against marine pollution,” reveals Salisa Traipipitsiriwat, an impassioned senior campaigner with the Environmental Justice Foundation (EJF). By gathering crucial data alongside other organizations, EJF aims to arm marine scientists with insights necessary for assessing the ghost gear’s impact on Thailand’s marine ecosystems. “Yet, the puzzle remains incomplete without uniform data collection,” admits Salisa.

Not far from the shores of Phuket, around 20 volunteer divers equipped with an arsenal of underwater tools—scissors, nets, and notebooks—plunge into the depths. Their mission? To extract entangled nets and document their findings, urging fellow recreational divers to join this noble cause. In solidarity, some 500 fishermen have also been enlisted to retrieve lost nets, a collaborative effort bridging communities for a common cause.

The recovered debris undergoes sorting and weighing, with a fortunate portion being repurposed. Till date, EJF has salvaged approximately 130 tons of ghost gear from Thailand’s coastal waters, transforming pollutants into productive materials. Amid these efforts, a heartrending discovery—a deceased turtle washed ashore, its stomach a graveyard of plastic and rope remnants—underscores a painful reality. “Today, plastic waste seals the fate of countless endangered sea creatures, mirroring a distressing trend of mortality among marine inhabitants,” laments Patcharaporn Kaewmong, helm of the marine rescue center in Phuket.

This narrative isn’t solely about the plight of marine beings or the perils of plastic. It’s a clarion call for humanity to awaken, to recognize the interconnectedness of our actions and the health of our planet’s oceans. As the dance between conservationists and the unseen enemy ensues, the question remains—will we rise to the challenge and reclaim the sanctity of our marine realms, or will we remain bystanders in this aquatic odyssey?

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