Uncovering the Haunted Sea of Ustica Island

Uncovering the Haunted Sea of Ustica Island

Time to read: about 12'

Ghost stories, ghost houses, ghost towns, ghost notes…Although scientists say there is no evidence that ghosts really exist, there are plenty of people who think ghosts are real. What I know for sure is that ghost nets ARE damned real.

A Ghost-thing usually refers to something that is deserted, dead, muted, empty or creepy. What makes a ghost net spooky is the desolation of marine life brought by an abandoned fishing net and this last one is the killer to be charged. Well, perhaps it’s more correct to state that the ones behind the net are to be held accountable.

The wonderful seabed of the Marine Protected Area Ustica Island is threatened by abandoned fishing gear.

“Is that what you’re saying?!”

 When Ghosts Became Real


It all started on a sunny and busy day on the Linosa Sunshine Dive Boat in the middle of the high season, when divers of every kind and level display even the most fanciful requests. We also had the RIB beside the boat for the daily customers who had to be in port in time for the hydrofoil back to Palermo. Despite the bustling people on board and under the boat, we always have the chance to have a little talk in a different pace with any of our guests. It so happened that one of these light-hearted chats between one of us and a friendly dive guest had ghost nets as a topic. We obviously tend to avoid describing the negative aspects of our environment, but sometimes you meet people who are sensitive to environmental issues and inevitably we share our concerns.

It was only a few months later, at the end of the season, that I found myself filling out a grant application for the project “Ghost Nets Removing in Ustica Island”.

Ok, this got critical. I mean, it’s not that we weren’t taking the issue seriously before, but now I had to map our spotted ghost nets in Ustica’s seabed, create a project, provide a budget, make a feasibility plan, include all actors needed, check authorisations, evaluate the critical aspects, describe operating methods and point out the importance of this mission related to the environment and the community without putting it in a “Miss Universe” mode by willing the peace for the world. Putting in words our capabilities and our motivations wasn't such a simple task in the end.

17th March 2023: the agreement is signed and we are officially in charge to carry out the first mission of ghost nets recovery focussed exclusively on Ustica Island.

Go and Get them!


Spring has come and it is time to get into action.

Stage 1 – Survey.

We selected 5 spots among all spots around the island where we detected abandoned nets. We surveyed them once more for a specific recognition of the underlying substrate and dimension estimation of the nets, in order to set up, for each site, the specific procedures of the action plan.

Stage 2 – Action

For each dive spot a single expedition took place. The dive team consisted of commercial divers, professional divers, a marine biologist and an underwater video operator and photographer, supported by the crew of the dive RIB, in charge of handling surface assistance and operations coordination. Two of us dove to flag the net and connect it with a signalling buoy, so the fisherman with its vessel could approach to collect the buoy tied to the net and pull it in with the winch. During the lifting, we would carefully extricate the entangled net from the bottom facilitating the recovery on board.

It never went in the same way for each spot.

For example, in Punta Falconiera we managed to recover the spotted net in one go. The vertical wall made it somehow easier and we were quite happy to clear not only the naturalistic scenery from such ugliness but the underwater archaeological itinerary situated nearby has now its charm restored!

In Punta San Ferlicchio we had to replicate. Not because of the one net identified, but for a second net spotted during the recovery. It was as massive as the first one. So for the purpose of the project actually it turned out to be an extra job, but nothing can beat the delight in seeing this portion of the seabed thoroughly cleaned!

In Secca della Colombara the job has been completed as expected but we were not fully happy with it. The net was so old and we had to dive a couple of times to pick up several exfoliated parts of it, which just broke away during pick-up. And, we also found a portion of a net forming a big entanglement with vertical development and anchored on the bottom, full of encrusted marine life. We just decided to leave it there: it wasn’t harming anymore and we would have killed more species in collecting it than leaving it at the bottom. More than that, there is still an extension of the initial net which is nearly covering an area of gorgonians. We still have it in our plans to take action again before the current might displace the net and damage the corals.

In Scoglio del Medico the operation was carried out smoothly and rapidly: the net extended towards a deeper bottom than expected but as there was no current and we managed to arrive directly on the net without swimming for long time to get on it, we had enough time to include an extra job. More than others, this net had several live crabs trapped. Scoglio del Medico is one of the most beautiful dive spots of the island very popular among scuba divers, and alas, a favourite spot for fishermen. It has abundant wild life, rich in pelagic and benthic species, so very appealing for any category.

Stage 3 – Delivery

At this point, it’s the MPA and the local government to come on stage. The recovered nets are delivered as special waste, as for local procedures and regulations, and shipped to land, eventually for recycling process. But a third option is still in progress: reuse. Which is our favourite one and I am sure that it’s the best at the end.

Making Lemonade


When we recovered the first ghost net, I was thrilled by the successful operation and fascinated by the coralligenous biocenosis on the pieces of nets. While still wearing the dry suit I stared at them the whole trip back to the port and would have wanted an expert next to me to explain what species they were, if any of them could have been an alien species.
A few days later I called a dear friend of mine who is a marine biologist and told him what was on my mind. “Isn’t it just a waste to leave these concretions to dry under the sun, once they could be analysed and studied by researchers and may give us some new answers?!! I mean, you don’t collect ghost nets every day”.
I could see him smiling on the other side of the phone while giving me two reference researchers to contact in order to ask whether it could be of any interest to take part to the operations and be on site when the nets would have been recovered.

Some weeks later, a small team of students from the Biological, Geological and Environmental Sciences Department of the University of Catania was sent on a mission to Ustica Island and investigate on the concreted species of the recovered nets, hunting for alien species.

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The Fishing Issue


Ultimately, the mission was to remove from seabed the ghost nets that have been lost, dumped or abandoned, but which continue to trap and kill wildlife. As a Marine Protected Area, there are many restrictions on local fishery and there’s a small fishing fleet which turns in only few licenced vessels. However, some forms of net fishing are still allowed and due to seabed conformation and currents occasionally nets get lost or trapped. The removal brought back to life benthic species and pristine underwater sceneries. Despite the MPA regulation is quite strict about fishing - sure enough spearfishing is entirely forbidden in the whole area - surveillance and control are still weak. On the other side, local fishermen are poorly supported in the management of lost nets or even assess any alternative to fishing methods or to fishing itself.
Moreover, while fishing activities can be monitored, regulated or reformulated, accidental loss of fishing gear is a failure for the entire system: fishery industry, tourist industry and most of all, the environment. Once the net is at the bottom of the sea, there is no obligation for anyone to recover it, not for the fishermen or for the local community. It just lays there and it’s accepted by everyone as a loss. But nothing in nature just "stays", and while nature does find its own way, the action of a net continues in the wrong direction, determining the failure of the whole process.

The Missing Piece


If we look to the end the process turning out to be a success, we get to the delivery, shipping and eventual recycling, which are already well-established steps of the process. The municipality deals on a day to day basis with waste delivery and is held responsible, in case of special waste, together with the Coast Guard in case of waste derived from the sea.
So, the missing piece of the whole process is the recovery. And that's how we got into action.  The amount of nets recovered by the operation is raising awareness of locals and stakeholders on what lays underwater, which is normally covered by water and hidden from eyes (and hearts!).
We firmly believe that we were the right people at the right time for this project. First of all, it gave us the opportunity to act in concrete terms and in a systematic way against a threat we had to live with. We often were asked as a favour to help to set free an entangled fishing line or net, or attempting to remove portions of ghost nets we encountered during the scuba excursions. But none of these practices are the solution and more than that, it is not sane to encourage random and rough actions in terms of safety for the divers and effectiveness in solving the problem. Ghost Nets Removing in Ustica MPA really provided for a concrete solution.  

Neither the first nor the last, but the indispensable


Our mission is not anything new, though. I mean, there are many organisations and associations around the globe fighting against ghost nets and other fishing gear, involved in greater and more challenging operations than ours. Furthermore, as for the first Marine Protected Area in Italy, conservation as well as regulations has been implemented on Ustica Island for over 30 years, so great amounts of lost fishing gear would be downright unthinkable.
Nevertheless, small nets are threatening coral walls, sensitive species and habitats on the seabed and it is unacceptable to encounter any ghost fishing gear while scuba diving in one of best scuba destinations of the Mediterranean.
And we will do our best to meet anyone’s expectations.

Closing Credits

Successful outcomes are always the result of a whole team working well together. We cannot refrain from mentioning all the players in the field, to whom we are grateful.

Involving the fishermen in the operations gave us the opportunity to form a special bond with them, breaking the wall usually built between them and us dive operators. They have fully appreciated our mission and intend to cooperate in a task force set up by local stakeholders in order to prevent other ghost nets and ghost fishing gears abandoned at sea.

The participation of the Marine Protected Area was imperative and unavoidable as any marine operation on Ustica has to be authorised or communicated. But it was more than that: the director in person followed the operations and intervened in problems which rose along the way. Most of all, the MPA gave the major support in terms of promotion, as it fully financed the photo & video report of the whole project.

The Coast Guard has been a valuable partner. Unfortunately, in Italy bureaucracy is quite constraining also at sea! But the local office was very efficient in providing authorizations in order for us to operate lawfully and was present at sea for any emergency.

The biggest hurdle was the waste delivery. That was when we appreciated the intervention of the Municipality of Ustica: only the local authority could take in charge of this tricky issue, allowing us to proceed with operations without the stress of thinking what to do with the nets after the recovery.

The students from the University of Catania added a precious research component to the project, conducting a study on the fauna associated with ghost nets and an evaluation of their impact on the marine environment. We’re thrilled to know about the results!

Have a look at this video >>> and you’ll get the whole picture of our mission in only 12 minutes of footage: loaded with valuable content and astonishing images it’s a transmission of concepts and feelings in a clear, concise way. That’s because of our young but experienced filmmaker Stefano, who took part to our dives, with his brother photographer Mathia, sharing our achievements as well as our failures and struggles.

Last but not least, indeed Sicily Environment Fund, our grantor, is the first one to be thanked for allowing the whole project to be realized. We are honoured Gaia and Ambra have placed their trust in us as being one of the projects of their first round of partnerships in marine conservation. I’m really glad our paths have crossed for the better and personally happy for sharing a mission with two passionate and determined women as few around.

Tatiana Geloso  - Co-owner of Mare Nostrum Diving, Entrepreneur, Professional Diver, Scuba Instructor & Ocean Advocate


Danilo Genovese - Co-owner of Mare Nostrum Diving, Entrepreneur, Professional Diver, Commercial Diver & Surveyor
Mare Nostrum Diving - Recreational & Commercial Dive Operator, SEF Grantee.
Stefano & Mathia Coco -
Riccio Blu Visual Communication
Felice & Gioacchino Caminita - Local Fishermen Soc. Coop. C. Colombo
Davide Bruno - Director MPA Ustica Island
Com.te Aldo Spagnolo - Coast Guard
Alessandro, Roberta - Professional Divers & Mare Nostrum Diving Project Supporters
Marine Biologists:
Marco Spoto - Diver
Giulia Aversa - MPA Consultant
Francesco Tiralongo - Chief Researcher Study on the fauna associated with ghost nets
Sicily Environment Fund
Gaia Agnello
Ambra Messina