Our oceans have a debris problem, but the surprising fact is that nearly 50 percent of the waste in the great Pacific gyre, a floating mass roughly the size of France, consists of lost plastic fishing nets. Commonly, fishing nets are lost due to bad weather or gear getting tangled or caught on the ocean floor. Fortunately, one small Florida organization is taking on the challenge of pulling “ghost nets” out of the ocean. And they do it in a unique way; fashioning the nets into bracelets, the sale of which funds further cleanup efforts. Rob Webster, founder of Qatica, spoke with Brad Lemley about how Vital Choice and his organization have teamed up, and what average citizens can do to help.
How did you get started in your work to clean up the oceans?
I'm a native Floridian. Down here, we have some beautiful beaches and coastlines. I've always found my heart is connected to the beach, the ocean, the dolphins, sea turtles and life that’s so fragile and needs protection.
In 2014, I was director of a marine science education program on Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas. We would fly students in from various places and teach them about marine life.
One aspect was teaching them how to do a beach cleanup. We’d collect plastic bottles and other things, but fishing nets were clearly abundant, and the most hazardous type of debris for marine animals.
We collected a lot of material and I put it in my suitcase, brought it back to the States, and had the idea to turn my garage into a mini-workshop. We found that transforming these nets into bracelets and rings - wearable pieces of artwork - told the story directly of the dangers in the ocean.
And that’s how Qatica began?
The name [pronounced qua-TIH-kuh] embodies the ocean, and it’s actually a for-profit business that operates in a charitable way. I found that non-profits put many restrictions on what you can do, and we wanted more flexibility. We devote a significant percentage of our profits to ocean-cleanup organizations, so it’s a business that runs like a charitable foundation.
We directly donate to nonprofits such as Sea Shepherd, the Ocean Conservancy, and even smaller organizations I work with in my community such as Keep Tampa Bay Beautiful.
That leads to the question: What’s in the ocean? Are we getting sophisticated about understanding and categorizing the threat?
I'm not a scientist, but I work with a lot of different scientists. We’ve found that specifically that by volume, the fishing nets were the most plentiful waste that we found the Bahamas, and consequently, it seems like the science supports that data as well. In the Pacific Gyre alone, it's almost 50 percent of the plastic that they're finding is due to accidentally lost or discarded fishing nets that are made out of plastic, and lasting for hundreds of years in the environment.
The unfortunate fact is that those lost, large nets keep doing exactly what they were designed to do, catching fish and animals, who then drown or starve while caught. So cleaning up the nets was our focus from the start.
So what’s the best way to clean up these nets?
Well, if you wait for them to wash up on the beach as we did during our beach cleanups that’s useful, because they can wash back out at high tide. But that’s obviously far from the best method. Through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, researchers are exploring methods such as embedding GPS tracking devices inside the fiber of the net, at roughly every ten feet, so the net can be located after it’s abandoned.
You can also do things like send out drones to locate them, and then send a ship to haul them aboard. A team in Hawaii just pulled up 30 tons of nets this way.
But there is no silver bullet to solve this. It will take many strategies.
So tell me about the bracelets.
I am no jeweler by trade, but you can see I'm wearing a couple of different ones right now, and I do think they look good. I really wanted to preserve the integrity of the material and have them tell the story of the ocean.
Once we sort the material, we basically hand cut it with a hot knife and make these. It's amazing the different colors we're finding: the greens, the blues, the purples, the pinks. When I first noticed that, I said, “Wow, this is deadly to marine life, but it's beautiful at the same time.”
People should know that each bracelet purchased represents the removal of one pound of fishing nets and gear from the oceans.
Vital Choice customers who purchase these from us should know all of Vital Choice’s profits go to two organizations, Washington CoastSavers and the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. We hope to sell quite a few! When you sell the bracelets to support your work, how are they being received?
Oh, well, you know, we've sold these across the globe. All these people that are obviously in love with the ocean as much as we are. We've sold to date above thirty thousand bracelets. So we're really excited about that number and obviously optimistic about the future.
Vital Choice makes a concerted effort to source from fishing operations that employ environmentally responsible practices and is committed to helping to solve the ghost net problem.
Please visit the link to purchase a bracelet and help support ocean clean-up.