Far out in the South Atlantic Ocean, invisible to the South African coastline, diver Pascal Van Erp surfaced with an abandoned lobster cage covered in algae and other marine organisms.
He pulled it up to the deck of the Arctic Sunrise, a Greenpeace vessel conducting research around Mount Vema, an underwater mountain located around 1,600 kilometres northwest of Cape Town.
Underneath the layer of the dark algae was a green hard plastic cage used to trap lobsters, with a small white pot attached to it.
“We are a thousand miles off the coast of South Africa and finding abandoned fishing gear here… is extremely disgusting,” Greenpeace marine biologist and oceans expert Thilo Maack told reporters on board the ship.
Known as “ghost gear”, abandoned fishing objects make up a significant volume of plastic pollution in seas and oceans around the world and can trap large marine wildlife, causing them slow, painful deaths.
Nets, lines, cages, crayfish traps and gillnets are either lost or intentionally dumped in the ocean at an estimated average rate of one tonne per minute.
An underwater drone revealed Mount Vema, where the Greenpeace mission operated, had not escaped such pollution. Images showed a scattered array of fishing ropes and nets clinging to the 4,600-metre mountain, whose peak sits 26 metres below the surface.
Researchers on the three-week expedition could not determine how long the abandoned gear had been sitting there — but say it could have been there for more than a year given the state it was in.
The United Nations estimates that 640,000 tonnes of fishing equipment is discarded around the oceans each year, the weight equivalent of 50,000 double-decker buses, said Greenpeace.
They are estimated to account for 10 per cent of the plastic waste in the oceans and seas globally, according to the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO).
But “in some specific ocean areas, fishing gear makes up the vast majority of plastic rubbish, including over 85 per cent of the rubbish on the seafloor on seamounts and ocean ridges,” as well as in the Great Pacific gyre, a Greenpeace report said Wednesday.
‘Zombie in the water’ –
From their underwater resting ground, discarded non-biodegradable materials continue to catch fish and crustaceans, and ensnare large mammals such as dolphins.
“(Ghost gear) is like a zombie in the water,” Maack said. “Nobody takes out the catch, but it’s still catching.”
Such pollution kills and injures more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles annually, according to UK-based charity World Animal Protection.
More than 300 endangered sea turtles were killed in a single incident last year after swimming into a what was believed to be a discarded fishing net in southern Mexico.
“It’s a huge problem because as they are initially set to trap and kill marine wildlife, they will do that for as long as they are in the oceans,” Greenpeace Africa’s campaigner Bukelwa Nzimande, 29, told reporters.
Plastic can take up to 600 years to break down, eventually disintegrating into harmful micro-particles that are ingested by fish and end up in people’s food.
Bottom fishing was banned on Mount Vema in 2007 by the Namibia-based South-East Atlantic Fishing Organisation (SEAFO).
But only one per cent of the world’s oceans are covered by regional management bodies like SEAFO.
‘Cycle of death’ –
Around 64 per cent of oceans lie outside national jurisdiction, according to the UN.
Environmental groups are lobbying the intergovernmental organisation to come up with comprehensive governance systems that better protect marine life.
They are also pushing for stricter measures forcing fishermen to retrieve lost gear or pay for its retrieval.
Meanwhile, non-profit organisations have taken it upon themselves to do some cleaning of the seas and oceans.
“For me, removing lost gear is the most exciting (thing),” said diver Van Erp, founder of Dutch-headquartered clean-up charity Ghost Fishing, which has been operating since 2012.
“When I find it I’m really thrilled,” said the 43-year old, his bright orange suit still dripping from his hour-long dive in the cold South Atlantic Ocean waters.
“It keeps catching. It’s sort of a cycle of death.”
From den of vice to joggers’ haven, Karura forest thrives
Within 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations
“We would collect dead, dumped bodies. Some were decomposing… others were fresh,” said John Chege of his early days policing Nairobi’s Karura Forest, back when thieves and murderers outnumbered joggers and dog walkers in the woods.
Karura then was the stuff of urban legend, a fearsome place invoked to scare misbehaving children. Chege and his scouts, stumbling on corpses by day, kept white-knuckled vigils by night as they scanned the darkness for intruders.
“It was hell,” Chege told reporters of his hair-raising first months as Karura’s inaugural chief scout, back in 2009 when efforts began to reclaim the forest. “But today we celebrate because there is nothing of the sort.”
In the space of 10 years, Karura has gone from a dangerous no man’s land to one of Nairobi’s safest and most popular destinations, a verdant refuge in a city that has long carried the unfortunate moniker “Nairobbery”.
Karura is also a symbol against land-grabbing, having been saved from developers to become the world’s second-largest forest that is fully within city limits, conservationists say.
Kenya’s forests are cleared at a rate of 5,000 hectares (12,300 acres) a year, the environment ministry said in 2018. But Karura has survived, even as green spaces are being swallowed by concrete in one of Africa’s fastest-growing cities.
From zero visitors in 2009, today Karura attracts up to 30,000 nature lovers a month, with 10-year commemorative events planned in October to mark its striking transformation and storied history.
For many years, hardly anyone came, said Karanja Njoroge, who chaired Friends of Karura Forest, a community group that co-manages the reserve, from 2011 to 2018.
Bad reputation –
Shaking its reputation was a challenge, even after an electric fence was raised around the perimeter.
“Karura Forest in 2009 was a place where no one would even want to be threatened to be taken. It meant either you were going to be killed, or that you were going to be punished,” Njoroge said.
Chege and his scouts, who were trained by the British army, could not convince nervous joggers they would be safe, and so ran alongside them in khaki fatigues.
“Perhaps a visitor wanted to run 10 kilometres? My guy was to run 10 kilometres,” he said.
Slowly, visitor numbers grew as the criminals were flushed out. A clubhouse, long abandoned because patrons kept getting mugged, reopened its doors. Women felt safe enough to run on their own, Chege said.
Local communities were vital in bolstering security.
Chege, a former illegal logger, was recruited from Huruma, a slum on Karura’s northern fringe. The community used the forest for firewood, and as a rubbish tip and open toilet.
Today, they are its custodians, planting saplings, clearing weeds and policing its borders.
Karura narrowly escaped destruction in the late 1990s when, crawling with bandits and ravaged by logging, developers gifted parcels of the forest to politically connected elites.
The upland forest is a developers dream: 1,000 hectares of prime land, straddled by Nairobi’s most exclusive suburbs.
Wangari Maathai, the late founder of Kenya’s Green Belt Movement, and the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize rallied church leaders, lawyers and students to Karura’s defence.
In January 1999, armed thugs attacked Maathai as she tried to plant seedlings in an act of protest, landing her in hospital.
The violence made international headlines and outraged a public tired of corrupt elites grabbing state land.
The protesters won the day: development was halted.
Green icon –
The forest still bears the scars of this violent past. Bald tracts of forest cleared for mansions abut thriving black wattle — a tree whose growth was spurred by fires from the days protesters burned tractors in defiance, Chege said.
But its tranquillity is not assured.
Other forests, such as Oloolua in Nairobi’s south, have suffered from rampant encroachment. Even the city’s iconic national wildlife park is being sliced through with a railway whose construction began last year in defiance of a court order.
Though Chege worries more about dogs off leashes these days than dealing with dead bodies, a road being widened on Karura’s eastern border has raised concerns.
Land grabs are not a distant threat. In July, a court ruled against a private company trying to claim 4.3 hectares of Karura.
“If everybody who wants to build keeps chipping away, there will be very little left,” Njoroge said.
Karura persists as a conservation triumph. Native trees are taking back the forest from species introduced by the British to fuel their railway to Uganda, notably eucalyptus trees.
Before conservation efforts began, non-native trees, many of them invasive, made up 60 per cent of the forest. Eucalyptus, in particular, inhibit the growth of other plants and monopolise the water supply with their voracious thirst.
The forest contains rivers, waterfalls and caves used by anti-colonial rebels. Joggers encounter bushbucks, hornbills and Syke’s monkeys.
Maathai’s daughter, Wanjira Mathai, said her mother would be proud of what Karura has become, “and maybe even surprised at just how much people love it”.
“She had hoped her children’s children — my generation and our children — would enjoy this forest, and that’s what has come to pass,” Mathai told reporters.
Young climate activists push for more awareness in Africa
No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa
As Greta Thunberg and the Extinction Rebellion inspire climate protesters across the globe, young African activists say they still struggle to make themselves heard.
“No continent will be struck as severely by the impacts of climate change as Africa,” the United Nations Environment Programme said as it warned of increased flooding, widespread food insecurity and major economic losses.
But awareness remains low and a study from research institute Afrobarometer in August said that four in 10 Africans have never heard of climate change.
At the Climate Chance conference in Ghana’s capital Accra this week hundreds of campaigners, local government officials and business people from across the continent sought a way forward.
Togolese activist Kevin Ossah, 22, led a mock United Nations debate that pitched participants playing the role of major polluters like the United States against those set to bear the biggest burden of the crisis.
He said he admires the huge crowds taking to the streets from Sydney to Stockholm, but in his West African homeland — ruled by an authoritarian regime that has cracked down on protests — that wasn’t really an option.
“As youths, we can’t be putting our lives in insecurity by entering roads and doing something that Greta is doing,” he told AFP.
Instead, he plans to focus on more practical steps like planting trees, educating rural communities and writing to leaders calling for action.
“I think the thing we can do is use communication and digital communications skills,” he said.
“We have to share information and let other people know about us and share the efforts that we are doing.”
Africa produces only a tiny fraction of global greenhouse gas emissions and the fight against climate change can often be seen as an issue more for people living in the developed economies of Europe, America and Asia.
But those attending the conference insisted awareness could grow if local officials and activists focus on the problems Africans confront every day.
Akwannuasah Gyimah, municipal chief executive of Asokwa in central Ghana, told AFP he was committed to increasing education about climate change to his constituents.
As a starting point, he wants to target the poorly maintained vehicles that belch acrid black fumes into the faces of passersby in his region.
“It is difficult to deal with this situation because the people don’t even understand what it means,” he said in reference to the environmental impact.
Benin’s former environment minister Luc Gnacadja said one problem was the lack of access to information and education on the issue.
He said young people needed localised data about the impact that climate change is having on populations and the economy to help lead the fight.
‘There will be change’
Crowds have taken to the streets in some African cities as part of the global protest movement — but their numbers have been tiny compared to elsewhere.
Gnacadja said the bold tactics employed by young demonstrators in the West did not readily translate to the rigid hierarchies of societies where challenging elders is often a taboo.
“They can’t just go ahead and speak like Greta Thunberg, of course, the youth in Africa will have difficultly to say ‘how dare you’,” he said.
Those challenges did not seem to faze Patience Alifo, 23, from Ghana.
The climate campaigner insisted that youth needed to be included in the debate — and that often it is the people in power who need educating the most.
Alifo said some authorities refuse to listen to young activists and the solutions they might propose.
Even at the climate conference, she insisted, more young people should be represented.
“We are the current generation, and we are the ones who will face the consequences, if we have the knowledge about it, I am sure they (young people) will all be here to negotiate or advocate for good policies,” she said.
And like activists across the world, she said campaigners in Ghana were getting bolder and would not be silenced or ignored.
“Even though we are not seeing the desired results we believe that as we continue there is going to be a change.”
Senegalese divers plunge to end Dakar’s plastic tide
In real terms, their cleanup was Sisyphean: they removed a molehill in a mountain of plastic that is relentlessly growing
When the sight of plastic bags, bottles and other debris littering the seabed becomes too much, there’s just one thing to do: don your diving suit, strap on an air tank and fish out the stuff yourself.
That is the solution adopted by Oceanium, an association of amateur divers in Senegal.
In a few hours last month, divers removed hundreds of kilos of plastic rubbish in the waters around the island of Goree off the capital Dakar — the jewel in Senegal’s tourism crown.
In real terms, their cleanup was Sisyphean: they removed a molehill in a mountain of plastic that is relentlessly growing.
But it provided temporary relief for local biodiversity — and gave a push for environmentalism in a country where green issues trail far behind the drive to ease poverty.
“We’re here to clean up,” exclaimed Ndeye Selbe Diouf, a young woman who took up diving two years ago and said she had lost count of fish she has seen trapped in bottles near the shore.
Oceanium’s diving director, Rodwan El Ali, 36, said the problem of plastic rubbish in Senegal was acute.
“People go to the beach and drink and party, and if there are no rubbish bins, they leave it on the beach and it’s swept into the sea with the tide,” he said.
Ali, a member of the ethnic Lebanese community that has been in Senegal for generations, took over Oceanium with his sister after its founding by their father, Haidar, a former environment minister.
“When we see fishing nets tangled around shipwrecks or plastic littering the sea bottom, we organise a cleanup,” he said.
Their first operation took place in 2017 and is moving towards a monthly cleanup dive — even weekly, if funding becomes available.
“People throw everything into the sea because they think it’s big,” said Mamadou Ali Gadiaga, who has been a member of Oceanium since it was founded 35 years ago.
“It’s a hard job but you have to make people aware of the problem. The sea is not a dustbin.”
Twenty-two divers took part in a cleanup in mid-September, using two boats for operations and a third as a floating bin for the rubbish.
By the close of the operation, they had hauled up 1.4 tonnes of debris — mainly plastic but also rusty drink cans, torn clothing and other discarded items.
This gesture for the environment has to be weighed against the realities.
Even though Senegal is in the upper tier of developing economies, it has no recycling facilities.
The rubbish that was so arduously brought up from the bottom of the sea was sent to a huge garbage tip at Mbeubeuss, where household waste from Dakar’s three million people is discharged.
According to the UN, globally, around eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the sea, providing a deadly hazard for birds and marine mammals and breaking down into microscopic waste that also enters the food chain.
Around nine billion tonnes of plastic have been produced since the substance was produced on a large scale after World War II, but just nine per cent of this has been recycled.
In Senegal itself, environmental awareness remains low compared with the rising swell of campaigning in the rest of the world. Only a few dozen young people turned out on September 20 for the planet-wide environment rallies.
President Macky Sall has said he wants the country to be “zero waste” but discarded plastic containers and bags are an eyesore in many towns and villages, and a 2015 law to restrict the use of plastic bags is a dead letter.
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