The European Union’s fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, revealed new plans to pay fishermen to catch plastic trash in order to solve the simultaneously detrimental issues of decreasing fish stocks and the buildup of plastic debris in European fishing waters. A pilot project will begin this month in the Mediterranean whereby fishermen will be given the proper net equipment to collect accumulated plastic detritus that is impacting marine life and then have it be recycled.
Damanaki commented on the issue in her blog, “I understand the scale of the problem as well as the outrage of citizens at dirty beaches, at plastic bags found in deepwater Mediterranean canyons, at plastic particles ingested by marine mammals. Preserving the Mediterranean Sea is not only a matter of environmental sustainability. It is also a matter of considerable economic and social implications.”
At first, EU member states will subsidize the program, with hopes that it will eventually become a profit-making enterprise for participating fishing fleets as their earnings increase from the growing worth of recycled plastics.
This plan came as welcome news to some fishermen indignant over the EU fisheries commissioner’s recent proposal to ban the discarding of edible fish at sea. Fishing fleets have been concerned that this resolution will mean a loss in profit by not being allowed to discard catch at sea that is of lower value. The practice of discarding is commonplace -- two thirds of fish, typically dead already, are thrown back due to fishing fleets surpassing their quota or putting precedence on higher value fish.
According to a recent article in The Guardian, about one million tons of fish are thrown back into the North Sea alone annually.<
Damanaki explained to The Guardian, "Ending this practice of throwing away edible fish is in the interest of fishermen and consumers. It has to happen – we cannot have consumers afraid to eat fish because they hate this problem of discards…People [in the fishing industry] feel insecure, because this is a change. That is why they need incentives."
In addition to providing a second source of income for fishermen -- much needed in a time of ever-diminishing fish stocks -- this plan will help save the lives of fish and other marine life. It’s no news that plastic debris in our seas and oceans harm marine life when they consume non-biodegradable plastic material. Plastic waste not only hurts the fish, but can also cause damage to fishing gear and contaminate catch, which is why it would seem to be in fishermen’s own best interest to address this matter and even be a major part of the solution
Programs such as the EU’s Mediterranean trial are already in existence, but only on a voluntary basis, such as KIMO’s Fishing for Litter Campaign, which just recently hit the mark of having removed 200 tons of plastic detritus from the North Sea by 162 fishing vessels. Participating fishing boats eliminate the litter from their nets, bring it ashore, and KIMO has it disposed of responsibly.
Will the concept of this project catch on elsewhere and will the alternative income provided by the recovered recyclable plastic be enough to supplement what fishermen are losing from depleted fish stocks? Either way, this seems like a fresh, creative approach that should be recognized as a proactive step toward solving both a complicated economic and environmental problem.
Lesley Lammers is a freelance sustainability consultant and journalist, focused on the intersection between the environment, food, social impact, human rights, health and entrepreneurship.