Saturday 1 May 2021

"Magnet Fishing" and the Environment

'Social distancing' during a pandemic,
UK artefact hunter style (photo: Katherine Rose)

There is an article in the Guardian about the type of artefact hunting that uses powerful magnets thrown into water bodies to hoik out metal artefacts (Robbie Armstrong, 'What’s the pull? Magnet fishing proves a catch in pandemic Scotland – a photo essay' Guardian 30 Apr 2021 photographs by Katherine Rose ). 

Part environmentalism, part treasure-hunting, magnet fishing has attracted a tight group of enthusiasts around Glasgow who cast their lines out for grenades, knives, cannon balls – and shopping trolleys [...]  The group’s founder, Mark McGeachin [...] says: “I didn’t have any friends before this, I distanced myself from them because I didn’t like the way their lives were going. “Now, I’ve got this big group of friends, I’ve got my business, my mental health … I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face and I’ve got a reason to live, and it’s all because of flinging a magnet in the water – it’s unbelievable. “It’s comradeship, I see half of these people as my family, I couldn’t see myself living without them,” he adds. For Clare Slater, a support worker, the wellbeing and community aspects are instrumental to the activity’s soaring popularity. She says: “For a lot of people it’s their only opportunity to socialise and get out. It does feel like a bit of a family – everyone is so nice and friendly, everybody’s there for each other and supporting each other. “A lot of people have been struggling with their mental health during lockdown, so it’s been good to get the opportunity to see other people and get out for some fresh air, and just get away from the four walls. “It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the local communities, and hopefully we can get a chance to have a bit of fun along the way as well.”

So here we have three of the arguments currently being touted as reasons for the PAS encouraging people to pick up metal detectorss and spades and trash archaeological sites for fun, 10 hoiking out interesting objects, 2) it's a niche activity for social misfits, allegedly the only thing separating the people that do it from some kind of mental collapse, 3) it's environmentally friendly, removing bits of metal from where people have thrown or dropped them.
One issue here is the archaeological damage caused when magnet fishers will target rivers associated with historic events such as battles (and do they have the required permits?). There is also the question of the hazard the hobby represents with regard to third parties also using the same open spaces
(Samantha Fisher, 'The hidden dangers of magnet fishing)' BBC News 14 September 2019. )

In the case of the 'environmental' argument, there are one or two points that have to be considered. In fact, strange as it may seem, ecological and environmental benefits are here in conflict. In trundling out this argument, what its proponents have in mind is the human environment and keeping it tidy rather than the Environment as a whole taking into account bio-diversity and ecology. Obviously removing foreign material from urban canals in winter will perhaps result in environmental benefits. It has been pointed out to me that during spring and summer, however, disturbance produces clouds of silt, reducing light, releasing nutrient, increasing chemical and biological oxygen demand. In such situations, not mentioned in this gleeful article, the environmental disturbance caused is not going to be beneficial. There are even issues of dragging out invertebrates (larvae) on the items removed. In rubbish gathering by environmentalists, a standard technique is to leave rubbish in/on margins to allow the opportunity for them to re-locate. Even then, some may be attached to items and desiccate on removal. There is also a question over the effect of strong magnetic fields on animals, but here research is only just beginning. A more significant problem involves the nature of the material in the sediments themselves. The undisturbed deposits under these waters, especially in urban and former industrial regions, may well contain significant concentrations of noxious substances. Metals are an obvious example (e.g., lead, cadmium, mercury, arsenic). In the past less care was taken over the disposal of industrial waste cotaining such contaminants. Contaminants sealed in deposits in water bodies created over the past two centuries or so could all be rendered mobile by disturbing them while pulling out metal objects in or on them.

As with all the other arguments in support of artefact hunting, there is a very clear problem of glib postulates being advanced that are merely based on some 'common sense' reasoning plucked from fresh air, without it being put into a wider factual context. Obviously, there is a problem that As with many of these issues, there is little specific research on the environmental effects of magnet fishing. The whole ‘it is of environmental benefit’ seems to have originated from the ‘fishermen’ themselves and it seems that there is a direct parallel with detectorists and their ‘modern agriculture will destroy artefacts in the plough-soil’ nonsense. If you do a search for "environment" and "magnet fishing", there will be lots of hits from various vested interests (presumably including the manufacturers and importers of these magnets) saying how wonderful it is for the environment.

Yet a search for the term ‘Environmental impact assessment of magnet fishing’ comes up a blank.

Hat tip:
I'd like to thank Dave Coward for drawing my
attention to this aspect of the text and discussing
it with me, some of the ideas used are his.  

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