A group of local scuba divers and I volunteered our services on January 16 to retrieve an abandoned fishing net ensnared on a shipwreck called the High Seas, located off the coast of Point Loma.
The mission was led and organized by Ocean Defenders Alliance, a nonprofit marine-conservation organization committed to protecting Southern California's rocky reef and seabed ecosystems from dangerous man-made objects. We focus on removing derelict and abandoned commercial fishing gear that pose a risk to marine life.
Local divers contacted Ocean Defenders late last year to inform us of the “ghost net.” Before the operation, we deployed underwater video equipment to assess the site and determine what resources were needed. Video of the High Seas captured the presence of a leopard shark carcass entrapped in abandoned netting.
The High Seas was originally built at the San Pedro Boat Works in 1945. During WWII, she was a 128-foot-long “yard patrol” craft, used for training and research. After the war, she was sold as surplus and converted into a fishing vessel. In 1970, she was cruising home in rough seas when the stern suddenly opened up. The crew escaped just before she slipped beneath the waves with a full load of tuna onboard. Today the High Seas lies in 100 feet of water off the coast of Point Loma.
The retrieval began with the captain informing us that the net had become encrusted to the wreck, so we were not sure if our mission would be a site survey or a recovery effort.
Our dive group decided to split into five teams. Team 1 would signal if net should be recovered. As we began our entry and descent, we noticed that the visibility was good — about 50 feet of clarity. Team 1 members Alex Caillat and Heather Hamza “saw huge swaths of net not attached to sea life, blowing back and forth in the surge, so we decided to pursue a recovery.”
Another team attached strobe lights to the bottom of the anchor line to “light up” the way home. The teams placed several 185-pound lift bags to uniformly raise the net. Each team had one diver with an inflation bottle.
After the net was raised, we began cutting it free of the wreck. The strobes were also useful in providing a visible light source through the cloud of silt that emerged once the net began to rise. The teams recovered a significant portion of the net.
After the first dive was complete, the winds picked up, making the seas rough. Our boat captain "called it" for the day, as attempting another dive may not have been safe. After returning to Mission Bay, it was determined that we had successfully recovered about 200 pounds of net. A significant amount of net on the High Seas remains, and we plan to make another trip in the not-too-distant future.
Experience has taught us that it’s critical to remove ghost nets, as they act like scrub brushes on the bottom of the ocean. Reef and seabed have trouble recovering from these effects. Benthic communities of brittle stars, sea anemones, and sea cucumbers get destroyed; ghost nets also pose a threat to life whales, sea lions, and fish because they get caught in them.
Alex Callait, Heather Hamza, Karim Hamza, and Steve Millington contributed to this article
Photo by Tom Boyd