In recent weeks and months, I’ve blogged about the effects of plastic in our environment and what we can do as consumers to reduce the amount that is used and disposed of. I’ve blogged about the size of the garbage patch floating in the Pacific Ocean and the effect that plastic is having on climate change. By reducing our plastic consumption and choosing reusable alternatives we really can make a difference.
However, one aspect of plastic pollution that I have rarely discussed is the impact that the fishing industry has on the amount of plastic in the global oceans. As it turns out, it’s much greater than any small change we can make.
The Fishing Industry’s Biggest Problem
From this single industry alone, researchers investigating plastic in our oceans estimate that 46% of the mass of plastic pollution in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch comes from discarded nets and fishing lines. These discarded nets are known as ‘ghost nets’. Annual estimates of the amount of fishing net dumped or lost at sea are thought to be between 640,000 and 800,000 tonnes.
‘Ghost nets’ are fishing nets that have just been discarded in the sea. They float around the ocean on currents or sink down to the seafloor, often entrapping or snaring marine life. This can cause marine animals to drown or choke to death either quickly or over a long period of time.
In one of the worst single ecological disasters caused by ghost nets, a 40ft x 40ft net was found and thought to have drifted around in the sea for about 100 miles. The diver that did find the net found a number of sharks, fish and other marine life tangled in the net – most had died.
The video below by the World Economic Forum shows just how ghost nets can affect marine life and what we can do to reduce the impact plastic fishing nets have on the marine environment.
At the moment there is no way of telling who bought or owns them, so no way of holding the fishing industry accountable for the waste they leave behind.
The majority of fishing nets that are discarded in oceans and rivers around the world are done so because they’re broken or no longer effective. Fishermen no longer have a use for them so they are thrown overboard with no care what happens to the nets after or what marine life they injure or kill.
The careless behaviour is often because it is more costly to dispose of or recycle broken nets, but it is having devastating impacts on marine life and is even making many species endangered or even worse.
But how can we hold the fishing industry accountable for the plastic pollution they produce?
There needs to be some sort of register for fishing nets. Every vessel that leaves any port around the world must come back with the same nets that they left with. Even if they are broken they can be returned at the port or dock and disposed of or recycled properly and a new one can be bought or supplied.
Tagging fishing nets would be another way to monitor the pollution caused by the fishing industry. Having a GPS locator on each net that links it to a certain ship or fishing company would stop the industry from disposing of nets at sea and ensure that nets are returned
Both methods could then be enforced by fines or penalties to companies and fishermen who don’t comply.
Recycling Fishing Nets
Fishermen often disposed of nets at sea because it was cheaper than disposing of them when returning to port. However, that is no longer the case.
There are ways of recycling fishing nets – even those that have been dumped at sea and floating around the global oceans for years or even decades. Healthy Seas is one company that collects these ghost nets before shipping them to Slovenia where they are regenerated to nylon yarn that can then be used to make clothing.
Don’t Give Up Cutting Out Plastic
Nothing I’ve said in this blog should stop you from trying to cut down on plastic waste in the home and in your daily lives. Whilst almost 50% of plastic pollution does come from the fishing industry, there’s still over 50% that comes from other sources – many of which we directly contribute to!
Research carried out on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch estimates that whilst discarded fishing nets and lines make up 46% of the total mass of plastic in the patch, microplastics make up 94% of the total number of plastic pieces within the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. These can easily be mistaken for food and consumed by small marine animals and birds which slowly poison the animals. Microplastics can also continue up the food chain meaning there is a very good chance we are consuming microplastics if we eat fish!
There will be those who play down the role we can have in reducing our plastic consumption – they’re the same people who belittle those who make an effort to turn lights off and avoid using the car when possible. If we all do our bit then we can collectively reduce the amount of plastic we consume at all levels.
We haven’t paid enough notice to plastic pollution from the fishing industry in the past but now the information is there and people just need to be educated on the damage that ghost nets can do to marine life. Now that information is there we must hold the fishing industry to account and stop further pollution of our oceans all over the world.