Sun, Sep 01, 2019 - Page 5 News List

FEATURE: Magnet fishing: The hobby cleaning up French rivers

AFP, LACROIX-SAINT-OUEN, France

“Magnet fishers” show the neodymium magnets they use to remove scrap metal from the Oise River in Lacroix-Saint-Ouen, France, on Aug 16.

Photo: AFP

Equipped with powerful magnets, history enthusiasts and environmentalists scour France’s rivers, pulling out bits of scrap metal, bikes, scooters and the odd kitchen appliance.

Sometimes, they fish other more unexpected objects out of the water, such as unexploded munitions.

“Magnet fishing” has fast become a popular pastime, public safety officials said, but French authorities have clamped down over fears that historical battle sites could still harbor active weapons.

As in other countries, practicers in France tie a supermagnet to a rope and drop it into waterways, partly for treasure hunting, partly for environmental reasons.

On the banks of the Oise River, in a town about 75km north of Paris, Owen Gressier, 20, and his three fellow magnet fishermen cast their neodymium magnets.

After several attempts at their spot near a bridge in La Croix-Saint-Ouen, they latched onto something. It took a few minutes to haul out the item with the help of a grappling hook. A rusty, cast-iron pipe emerged.

“Nice catch,” they said.

“We’ve been fishing here for a number of years, the bottom [of the river] is pretty clean,” said Gressier, a forklift truck operator.

Driven by what he called his passion for World War II and a quest to find medals, military gear and other historical objects, Gressier said that he also “quickly realized that it was possible to clean up the waterways”

In 2017, he set up a Facebook page, which now has more than 500 subscribers, where members share photographs, advice and organize outings.

“It’s crazy everything you can find in the water,” Gressier said, listing anything from electric scooters to traffic signs and microwave ovens.

“With a dozen people, you can sometimes pull out 50kg of scrap metal in a few hours,” he added.

In the neighboring Somme department, site of one of the largest battles of World War I, Christophe Devarenne started magnet fishing three months ago.

He said the thrill comes from “not knowing what will be at the end of the magnet.”

However, the 52-year-old driver said that “if you expect to find treasures, there are not many.”

Although he did pull out a rifle dating from 1914 to 1918, he said that it was “downright rusty after 100 years in the water.”

“Even the Museum of the Great War did not want it,” he said, adding that nothing goes to waste, as it is resold or given to scrap merchants.

In other French regions, too, where bloody battles were fought during both world wars, magnet-fishing enthusiasts have discovered shells, ammunition and grenades.

They can still be active, the national public safety authority said.

Faced with the hobby’s rising popularity in the past two years, including under the Pont des Arts pedestrian bridge in central Paris, the authority has made police across France aware of the dangers.

In May, a man was seriously injured after pulling out a shell that emitted mustard gas, in the Nord region, home to the town of Dunkirk.

Two young magnet fishers in the Somme at the end of July also hauled out a phosphorus grenade, which irritated their eyes, police said.

The pastime is now illegal in France without a permit issued by the state or landowners.

“We were not aware of the risks ... until my son found a grenade,” said Helene Ledien, who lives in the Somme.

She said that her 14-year-old son Arthur bought a magnet for about 30 euros (US$33) on Amazon and regularly fishes with his friend for environmental reasons.

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