With salt-crusted eyebrows and the circle indent of a snorkel mask still pressed into his skin, Delvis sat in the shade of his family’s patio. “There’s a huge net on the crags of La Granja, it goes across three or four rock piles.” He hadn’t speared very many fish that day, but in the near shore fishing grounds Delvis frequented, he had come across his competition. Diver fishermen along the northern coast of the Dominican Republic often encountered abandoned fishing nets tangled in the reef and rocks, where net fishers cut loose pieces of their gear. With the hope of some easy money, Delvis reported the net to the local conservationist, who had a history of paying fishermen for their help removing ghost nets.
Ghost nets occupy a position of great infamy in ecological narratives, where ocean advocates often cite the magnitude of lost or abandoned fishing nets in the world’s seas, with nets cited as making up 10 percent of global plastic pollutions. Other researchers have estimated that 640,000 tons of ghost gear enter the water each year, “haunting our seas” as they ensnare and kill marine life.
Ghost nets have become a touchstone for conversations about ocean health and plastic pollution, a language leveraged universally against fishing as an environmental harm. Optics surrounding ghost nets often feature the infamous floating islands of abandoned fishing gear that haunt the Pacific.
While they may have similar effects, the ghost nets my interlocutors encounter are not floating islands, but traces stuck to the seafloor. Diver fishermen regularly unwind netting from the reef, since it interferes with their fishing practice, but diver fishermen rarely feature in narratives of ocean conservation or net removal. Are they also ghosts, of sorts? Ghosts are traces, most often identified as the disembodied souls of humans or hauntings of past acts. But solid, living bodies are also deeply entangled with the ghosts at hand. The images here center the bodies involved in ghost networking, ghost net busting, if you will.
Fishing nets are expensive pieces of equipment for rural Dominicans, and they are host to fragile political ecologies and local economic hierarchies. Once, when the Council of Fish and Aquaculture seized nets of an illegal mesh size, the community reacted by blocking the road to the beach with burning tires, breaking into the local Council office, and leaving broken parts of the agency’s computers in the street. The nets were promptly returned. Given their value for fishers here, these nets are not readily cut loose. Often ghost nets are the result of the physical limitations of the fisherman using them. (Fishermen are rarely able to retrieve mesh stuck on the reef or in rock crags, much to the chagrin of the fishmonger who owns the equipment.)
The ghost net Delvis found stayed on the seafloor for two months after he reported it. The local conservationist—equipped with the gear from his dive center, expansive political connections, and funding from multiple conservation NGOs—had promised to include Delvis in the profits of ocean conservation labor. A film crew from a conservation-centered media company would provide a convenient dramatization of his conservation work, as well as the funds for the operation. By the time the film crew arrived, Delvis had lost the bearings he used to locate the net. He and the dive shop owner motored out to the area using scuba tanks to scour the seafloor, but even with the expensive gear, they couldn’t locate the net. Worried about losing this window of opportunity, the dive shop owner posted on Facebook asking fishers for help.
The next day Delvis pulled on his spearfishing gear, wading into the sea from the shore to follow his body through the motions of fishing the region. He found the net, marked it with a buoy, and brought the crew back to the spot. The film crew dramatized the ghost net’s removal, filming the dive shop owner and associates as they carefully disentangled the mesh from the reef, freeing crabs and fish along the way. Delvis never appeared in the frames of their cameras.