Abandoned nets and plastic microfibers threaten seafood industry

Published on
May 12, 2017

Plastic pollution of all sizes poses a grave threat to seafood producers around the world. Abandoned fishing equipment entangles marine life, including fish and seabirds, often killing them. Derelict lines and nets get caught in gear, boat propellers and other equipment, damaging them. Tiny bits of foam packaging and plastic microfibers from textile manufacturing are ingested by fish.

The macro plastics, such as lost gear and bags, can come from fishing boats or from land-based sources, washed into the oceans during storms. But in some ways, the tiny plastics invisible to the naked eye are a greater danger. Only a tiny fraction of plastic pollution floats, and an unknown amount ends up in the bellies of fish.

“Micro-plastics and nano-plastics that are ingested by various aquatic life pose a potential threat to aquatic food webs, and potentially to humans as we consume seafood,” Dave Glaubke, the director sustainability initiatives at Sea Port Products Corp, told SeafoodSource.

Fishermen and fish farmers both are worried, Glaubke added.

Awareness of the problem first arose when plastic equipment started replacing some ropes, nets and other fishing gear in the 1960s and 1970s, Glaubke said. However, concern over the dangers of microplastics has risen in the last decade.

The plastic threat is varied. Too many fish dying from ingesting bits of plastic directly harms fisheries and revenue, while repairing boats and equipment damaged by derelict gear costs fishermen.

Marine litter costs the European Union fishing sector about EUR 61.7 million (USD 65.7 million) annually due to reduced catch revenue, and the costs of removing litter from fishing gear fixing propellers and other equipment, a 2013 study found.

And consumers, if they’re worried about plastic in their tuna fillets, could avoid purchasing seafood.

Seafood professionals will have to be careful how they go about educating the public on the problem, while eliminating any plastics they contribute in their operations, Roy Palmer, the executive director of the Association of International Seafood Professionals, told SeafoodSource. And they need to address the problem with urgency.

“There should be far more of the industry reacting more to this major issue,” Palmer said. “Eight million metric tons of plastic is getting into the ocean every year, and this will only get worse unless we all make more of an effort to eliminate this pollution.”

Interest in marine debris ramped up following a 2011 Marine Debris Conference held by the United Nations and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Palmer said. Sixty-five associations from 34 countries agreed on a strategic plan.

Though roughly 260 projects have come from the conference, “these are mainly ‘local’ activities and there seems to be a lack of global initiative,” Palmer said.

To tackle the problem, seafood operators should carefully examine their operations and see how they can reduce or even eliminate plastics, Palmer said. Operators should examine ways to recycle plastic and find alternatives to plastic packaging. 

Governments need to ban microbeads, Palmer believes, and they need to implement better regulations up and down the plastic supply chain. Governments also need to develop better waste management infrastructure for all industries, and implement a tax on all plastics that are not biodegradable, with funds allocated to clean up the oceans, he said.

A partnership between private industry and the government is already making headway in reducing abandoned fishing gear. 

Waste management company Covanta, the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, NOAA and Schnitzer Steel have partnered to recycle unusable, abandoned fishing gear. Large collection boxes are placed at ports, and commercial fishermen can dispose of the gear there, reducing the risk of the marine debris becoming a hazard to navigation, fishing and marine life itself.

Covanta pays for the cost of transporting the boxes. Most times, the materials go to Schnitzer, where the gear is shredded and the metal is stripped and recycled. The remaining material is combusted for clean energy.

Though Covanta is making progress, fishermen need more education about plastic pollution, Meg Morris, vice president of materials management and community affairs at Covanta, told SeafoodSource. And they need greater access to disposal containers for old gear, Morris said.

More plastic is being produced today than ever before, and the problem has a global source: consumers around the world who use plastic packaging and products every day.

As public awareness of the problem rises, fishermen will need to come up with solutions, including, possibly, finding an alternative to foam packaging, Morris said. If fish keep eating plastic, the seafood industry will suffer.

“This could lead to concern by the public, resulting in less seafood eaten, and less protein-rich seafood being provided to those who need food the most,” Morris said.

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