Underwater divers in plastic-choked waters off the coast of Thailand snip through discarded nets tangled around a reef — a new initiative helping protect marine life and aiding the fight against coronavirus. The “ghost nets” discarded from the country’s lucrative fishing industry are a deadly source of plastic pollution, ensnaring turtles and cutting into delicate coral beds. Left unattended, “they could stay adrift for decades, either entrapping or becoming the food of marine animals,” says Ingpat Pakchairatchakul of the London-based Environmental Justice Foundation. Ingpat was speaking to AFP during a recent boat trip off the coast of Chonburi province, as a team of more than 30 divers hacked away at stubborn threads enveloping a reef 27 metres (90 feet) below the vessel. She is part of Net Free Seas, a project that fetches used nets and turns them into new plastic products — in this case meeting the burgeoning demand for protective gear like face shields to guard against the pandemic. It aims to prove that protecting sea creatures can be commercially viable in Thailand, one of the world’s biggest producers of ocean waste. The initiative also comes in the wake of a growing local outcry over the lethal effects of plastic on marine life. In one infamous example, a sick baby dugong named Mariam washed up in shallow waters two years ago and later died from an infection caused by plastic lining its stomach. It prompted an online outpouring of grief among Thais who had spent months watching a live web broadcast of rescuers trying to nurse the creature back to health. Mariam was among the nearly two dozen dead or injured large marine animals found beached on Thailand’s shores each year, according to Chaturathep Khowinthawong, the director of the kingdom’s marine park management agency.