If you are really serious about wanting to stop plastic from polluting the oceans, you should be prepared to stop eating fish.
Once plastics are in the ocean, there’s no easy way to remove them. Rather than biodegrade, plastics simply shred into ever tinier parts that end up entering the marine food chain and our freshwater systems. Plastic is indeed, forever.
And trying to tackle this micro-particle pollution is like trying to find a needle in a haystack, and then trying to remove that needle.
Over 300 million tons of plastic are produced each year, and eight million tons of that ends up in our oceans. Our best option is address the problem this stage.
But how? We are all too aware of the public shame we might expect from casually sipping from a plastic straw or using single-use plastic shopping bags. Shocking images of the 700,000-square kilometer Great Pacific Garbage Patch are seared into our collective consciousness. But have we been pointing the finger at the wrong culprits all along or at least overlooking an even bigger culprit?
It turns out that plastic straws are likely to account for 0.03 per cent of ocean plastic waste while a far more substantial 20 per cent can be attributed to fishing equipment.
The main constituent of the hideous ocean garbage flotilla is actually mostly composed of fishing equipment, something that makes up a high proportion of ocean plastic in general. Single use plastics contribute their share but according to George Leonard, chief scientist at the environmental nonprofit Ocean Conservancy, 640,000 to 800,000 tons of fishing gear is lost annually worldwide, which could account for at least 10 percent of all plastic pollution and perhaps as much as 70 percent of all macro plastics when estimated by weight in our oceans. It is generally accepted that globally, 20 per cent of ocean debris comes from fishing sources and 80 per cent from land.
However, in weight, 46 per cent of the patch is made up of fishing nets according to a 2018 study published in Scientific Reports, with the rest mostly composed of other fishing ‘ghost gear’ including eel traps, baskets and fishing ropes. It’s not just the fault of the fishing industry. It’s estimated that 20% of debris in the garbage patch was flushed out by the 2011 Japanese tsunami.
Is the only remedy to stop eating fish? Introducing simple sustainability measures to the fishing industry could have a huge impact on the problem.
For fishermen it’s often more costly to dispose of or recycle nets than to simply discard them – something that should be tackled if better behavior is to be encouraged. Boats could be forced to register the number of nets they have onboard for example and return with the same number or face fines. Another idea proposed by environmental groups is installing GPS trackers to nets that link them to boats, meaning they could no longer be discarded with impunity.
Some companies like Healthy Seas in Slovenia are working to recycle fishing nets; however, the infrastructure is not widely in place at ports to ensure this will happen. It’s clear that this legislation must be properly enforced, voluntary legislation previously introduced in the fishing industry has done little to change things.
“I understand why fishermen use plastic: it’s extremely durable and it’s more reliant than its natural-fiber counterparts,” says Napper. “But we need to work together with fishermen on those behavior aspects, so that any off-cuts from rope are kept on the boat rather than in the ocean, and also look at when ropes should be replaced to stop fragmentation of micro plastics directly entering the ocean itself.”
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