Strandloper Project

Local conservationists tackle ghost fishing and plastic pollution

I remember my first close encounter with a humpback whale like it was yesterday. It was the 12th of June 2014 and I was onboard the Ocean Odyssey vessel as their official photographer. We had been scouring the ocean parallel to our Knysna coastline for about an hour, actively searching for signs of our visiting migratory whales, when all of a sudden, a large humpback began lobtailing about 100m in front of us, slapping its enormous, powerful fluke hard against the ocean’s restless surface. I was awe-struck.

Humpback whale lobtailing
My very first photograph of a lobtailing humpback whale

I didn’t know it in that moment, but that day changed the course of my life forever. I had always enjoyed the ocean, but it wasn’t until I was given the opportunity to spend more time out at sea with Ocean Odyssey that my genuine love affair with the deep began. With every trip out through the Knysna Heads, my addiction to the ocean gets more intense. I have been fortunate to witness first-hand the wonders of our Indian ocean realm and because of this, I am fiercely passionate about protecting it.  Both Ocean Odyssey and I have the same mission – which is to help create as much awareness as possible, (through marine wildlife photography and blogging) about the importance of a healthy ocean. It is my calling.

Rarely a day goes by that our social media feeds are not punctuated by stories relating to the degradation of our global marine environment.  It is a rather sobering reality that Earth’s blue heart is facing a multitude of serious issues: plastic pollution, coral bleaching, whaling, rising sea temperatures and much more. As difficult as it is sometimes to see these posts, an enormous amount of awareness is spurned through these powerful online platforms – which ultimately affects positive change. Slowly but surely, people are becoming more aware and therefore more mindful of their individual actions and daily lifestyle choices. Babe Dioum penned it perfectly way back in 1968 when he said that: “In the end we will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we are taught.”

I have spent countless hours out at sea for the past 5 years capturing the beauty of our Knysna coastline and the wonder of our marine wildlife. The time has now come for me to come to shore for a little while, alongside several other conservationists, to document two very important local environmental issues which negatively impact our ocean: plastic pollution and ghost fishing. Most of us have read about the frightening amounts of plastic entering our oceans, but few people know much about ghost fishing, which poses a very real threat to our marine ecosystems.

Ghost fishing occurs when fishing gear is either lost, dumped or abandoned. While long lines and nets from fishing trawlers wreck the most havoc in this regard, recreational and subsistence fishing also negatively impacts on our sensitive underwater habitats. Once the line has been snagged and then cut, the hook is often left suspended in the water with the bait still attached. A fish then takes the bait, gets hooked and dies. Once that fish is dead, its decomposing flesh lures other marine life, and so the cycle continues. Studies have shown that one snagged line has the potential to kill up to 10 fish. Snagged gear can also cause significant physical damage to coral reefs.

To shed light on this serious issue and to help tackle it, local Nature Guide Mark Dixon, formed the Strandloper Project back in early 2018. It all started after Mark conducted a snorkelling tour at Gericke’s Point. Whilst below the surface, he was absolutely shocked to see how much discarded fishing gear littered an extensive section of the reef, which forms part of one of the most prized intertidal zones in our region. Mark has since dedicated a lot of time and energy in not only educating the general public about this environmental issue, but he has also rallied together like-minded ocean warriors (including me) to clean up the copious amounts of snagged fishing gear from our local reefs and waterways.

After several dives at three identified sites in Knysna and Sedgefield, it has become clear that this is a major issue and one which few are talking about. The Strandloper Project aims to change that. In order to effectively raise awareness about ghost fishing and plastic pollution, real data needs to be collected and analysed. In an effort to measure just how much plastic litters our shoreline and how much snagged fishing tackle is lurking menacingly beneath the surface, a group of local conservationists’ locals will be embarking on a 10-day Strandloper Project hike between Stilbaai and Wilderness.

Over the course of these 10 days, the team will walk in stages of 20km per day to survey washed up plastic pollution found en-route and will dive at certain key fishing sites to assess snagged fishing tackle. All of this will be documented using Cybertracker and will be classed in size, colour and original use and recorded with GPS location.  “By mapping the location of various categories of plastic found on the hike we will be able to link it to possible sources and then approach respective municipalities to take appropriate action to prevent future losses into rivers and the ocean”, said Mark Dixon. Data collected on ghost fishing can the be used to educate recreational fishermen throughout the region and possibly beyond.

Walking in the footsteps of the Strandlopers who combed the shoreline for sustenance before us, the team will also aim to forage at least one meal per day from the coastline.

The Strandloper hopes to make a tangible difference to our precious coastline by highlighting the very real issues that threaten it. Please follow our journey on Instagram @strandloperproject and check out our website for more information: