At this point, most of us have heard about plastic in the ocean. The amount of awareness has grown incredibly in a few years, and now even people I meet who are barely engaged in climate issues are looking at reducing their plastic use. It seems that many of us are waking up to not only how damaging plastic is, but how unnecessary and expensive single-use items can sometimes be too, and we’re moving towards better options instead.
This is, of course, a really positive start. But that’s what it has to be, a start. The reality is if we want to get plastic out of our oceans, we need to understand the true cause of the problem, so we can support effective solutions.
The main problem we have at the moment is that plastic straws have become the face of fighting plastic waste. When we think ocean plastic we think of cute turtles with straws up their noses and David Attenborough’s voice. Straws can be a legitimate waste issue and refusing a plastic straw is useful if we don’t really need one. However, many disabled people rely specifically on plastic straws, so banning them outright is inherently ableist policy. It’s much better to make them opt-in so those who really need them have the option available, and the rest of us can easily go without.
Plus, it’s important to look at numbers. While being anti-straw has a lot of attention, according to Bloomberg, plastic straws only make up 0.03% of total plastic waste by mass. By contrast, over 50% of ocean plastic waste comes from the fishing industry. And that’s what we need to change.
Why is plastic harmful?
Plastic kills marine life partially because of strangulation or choking. But the larger reason plastic is so dangerous is that it releases toxic chemicals like bisphenol-A (BPA) when it breaks down. BPA, which mimics estrogen, messes with our hormones and can be carcinogenic. A recent study found that plastic also kills coral reefs by making them more susceptible to disease.
The facts are widely known at this point. Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, instead breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, eventually becoming microplastics, that both release toxic chemicals and absorb ones like PCB’s and DDT’s (which have been linked to endocrine disruption and some cancers). Animals mistake plastic for food and eat it, which kills them. a UK study found that 1 in 3 fish caught for human consumption now contain microplastics, and those toxic chemicals work their way up the food chain to us (there’s no evidence to suggest that the plastics themselves pass from the gut into the flesh of fish, but chemicals are a different story). Nearly 700 species, at least 17% of them endangered, are affected by marine debris
Don’t eat fish? It doesn’t matter. Microplastics have also been found in 90% of table salt, in the air we breathe, and in the water we drink. In some beaches on the Big Island in Hawaii, microplastics can make up as much as 15% of the sand.
It’s vital things change and, while reducing plastic consumption and eradicating non-necessary single-use items is important, we have to change the fishing industry too.
How plastic from fishing enters the oceans
Most of the waste dumped by the fishing industry is gear lost at sea. In 2009 it was reported that 640,000 tonnes of gear are lost each year, although in 2018, this number was reported to be as high as 800,000 tonnes. Most of it is lost during storms, in strong currents, or after getting entangled with traps set along the seafloor by other fishermen. Because gear and nets are normally now made with synthetic fibres (aka plastic) for durability, they don’t decompose as rope once would have. Circular ocean currents (known as gyres) instead sweep these lost or abandoned pieces of fishing gear into ‘convergence’ zones, where they mix with other discarded plastics to form floating trash islands. The most famous of these is the Great Pacific garbage patch, which is twice the size of Texas.
These floating trash islands aren’t exactly how we’d visualise them. As opposed to solid masses they’re also comprised of a lot of microplastics, making the water cloudy and gelatinous, as plastic in the water breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces. At the same time, only around 1% of plastic collects on the surface of the ocean. Most of it collects on the ocean floor, where deep-sea sediments behave as a sink for the microplastics.
So what types of plastic are in the oceans, breaking down? A survey by scientists with Ocean Cleanup found that at least 46% of the Great Pacific garbage patch is comprised of fishing nets, while miscellaneous discarded fishing gear makes up the majority of the rest. Before these nets converge into trash islands, they already do great damage to habitats and marine life. As ocean currents carry these nets for long distances they continue to ‘fish’ for years after being lost, trapping animals inside. This is known as ghost fishing. When these animals die it attracts scavengers who go on to get caught in the same net, creating a vicious cycle.
Each year more than 100,000 whales, dolphins, seals and turtles get caught in abandoned or lost fishing nets, long lines, fish traps and lobster pots. 79% of reported deaths or harm to marine life are due to entanglement, and a 2019 study also found that 60% of animals had their entire body trapped, as they twist within the nets and become completely entangled.
What can be done?
Like with any plastic, the first course of action has to be preventing it from entering oceans in the first place. In 2018 countries belonging to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation agreed on guidelines to make this happen. These guidelines focus on helping countries develop systems for marking fishing gear so that it can be traced back to its original owner. This system would require the original owners of the gear to take responsibility for any gear they lose, including taking action to retrieve it properly (if an ecocide law is implemented, it would be an international crime for them not to). Making gear identifiable also means it’s less likely to be deliberately abandoned, whilst also assisting fisherman who want to retrieve their lost gear, and helping local authorities monitor how fishing gear is used in their waters, and who is using it, allowing them to fight illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing.
Other policies include educating the fishing industry about the problem and providing incentives for fishermen to report lost equipment and retrieve nets they find at sea. Establishing collection facilities at each port would help fishermen to dispose of old, damaged or retrieved gear quickly and safely, ready for recycling or reuse. Successful past programmes include the ‘Fishing for Energy’ programme, which provided no-cost options for gear disposal where nets, lines and rope were converted to energy.
When it comes to systemic change, Global Ghost Gear Initiative is also open to participation for anyone from the fishing industry, private sector, corporates, civil society, academia, and governments, with the goal of contributing to a worldwide solution.
Ocean-floor imaging can also help vessels avoid undersea snags, and meteorological equipment can help them avoid rough seas, which decreases the risk of losing gear in the first place (which is what we really need to prevent). At the same time, there are developments in biodegradable fishing gear such as traps which include escape hatches. These hatches dissolve when in water for too long, reducing ghost fishing as animals are able to escape.
Cleanups and retrieval
An Environmental Research Institute 2018 study shows that organisations focused on collecting and recycling discarded ocean gear have been on the rise. In 2016 Healthy Seas collected 152 tonnes of plastic waste from oceans; while this is small compared to the overall number, increased funding and interest can help scale these solutions to make them more expansive.
Simultaneously, the Ghost Fishing Foundation collaborates worldwide with various local groups of technical divers and salvage companies to remove lost gear. They currently have projects in the North Sea, Adriatic Sea, Aegean Sea, Mediterranean Sea, Caspian Sea, Pacific Ocean and Scapa Flow.
If you have diving experience, this may be somewhere you can get involved. For cleaning local dive sites you can start at open water level, however divers salvaging larger, more complex areas are usually technically trained with a lot of experience.
Recycling recovered gear
The ERI’s study also shows that there is a wide range of startups using this recovered plastic for new products. People may disagree on the best application of these plastics, but I think they work best as items that won’t be making a lot of contact with waterways, avoiding the release microfibres. Things like skateboards, carpet, bike baskets and bird feeders are all recent items that have been made with waste that once lay in the ocean.
Particularly exciting examples of recycling projects include Bureo in South America. They turn abandoned fishing nets into items like skateboards, sunglasses and frisbees, keeping track of each tonne of net recycled. With the support of the Chilean government, Bureo launched the Net Positive programme in 2013 for the collection and recycling of fishing nets. They purchase every pound of ghost nets from fishing communities for an agreed amount, which is then used to fund educational and recycling activities. Similarly, in Australia a project called Ghostnets brings together fish workers and the Indigenous community. Nets are transformed into crafts and artworks by Indigenous people, and profit from the sales becomes a partial income for all community members involved.
Straws act best as a gateway to tackling fishing
So why has there been so much focus on straws in the past and not on fishing? Firstly, because it’s something small and achievable. There’s a psychological theory called spillover, which is the idea that starting with one behaviour can motivate us to engage in more. Sometimes this spillover is negative, where we become complacent because we believe our one good choice makes up for bad ones. For example, believing that not using straws is enough, and not using this as a first step to changing the fishing industry. However, the hope is that the spillover will be positive, leading to increased environmental decisions moving forward. In this case, decreasing the use of other single-use plastic items, and advocating for changing regulations of fishing gear.
In order to minimize negative spillover, Truelove believes that we need to “feel good about our actions, but not too good.”
“The biggest problem for spillover is having an external motivation for behavior,” she said. A government-imposed ban is an example of this “external motivation” that she says could “become worrisome because people will stop using the plastic straw but won’t internalize [the lesson].”
Turns out, internalizing an action — making it part of your identity as an environmentalist —is the key to promoting positive spillover. And Truelove has found that in most cases regarding the environment, we do see positive spillover.
This backs up the idea that a government-mandated straw ban won’t be the most effective way to change our culture around plastic. But if we make it opt-in for inclusivity, whilst also still using it as a conversation starter around plastic, we’re likely to get more people who internalise the message. Then, we take that energy and apply it to the fishing industry.
I do also feel that this is a strong point to consider when it comes to reducing or eliminating fish consumption. Overfishing is often discussed, but waste in these industries usually doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. To learn more about the fishing industry, sustainable labels, and how to make more sustainable choices if you do want to continue eating fish, you can read my deep dive on the MSC label here.
The solutions already exist, it’s just about changing mindsets to implement them. Together we can harness the straw energy and redirect it into asking for better policy in regards to fishing, and promoting circular, waste-free solutions. It can be done, we just need to decide we want to do it.