Under new EU plans, fishermen may be paid to fish for plastic. Photograph: Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Rarely has a TV campaign been won so convincingly. In January this year, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Fish Fight programme persuaded over 600,000 of us to support a ban on the wasteful practice of throwing dead fish back into the sea. The European commission listened and has announced it intends to ban discarding fish.
For some peculiar reason, the fishing industry’s reaction to the commission’s announcement was not as warm as you might have expected. A discard ban will put many out of business, we now hear, presumably because many of the fish caught as bycatch are smaller and less valuable than the ones fishermen land today. So in announcing the plan, Maria Damanaki, the European fisheries commissioner, sought to soften the blow. Under her proposal, fishermen may be paid to fish for plastic instead.
Plastic fisheries sound daft, but the idea is far from silly. Our seas are awash with plastic bottles, bags, nappies, discarded fishing nets, ropes and thousands of other bits and pieces – the flotsam of modern life. By 2008, the latest year for which I have a figure, 260m tonnes of plastics were made using 8% of global oil production in raw materials and energy. The curve of production over time bends upwards like a cliff face, increasing by 9% per year. The stark reality of this ever-steepening upward climb is that more plastic was made in the first 10 years of this century than all of the plastic ever created up to the year 2000.
Deliberate dumping of plastic at sea has been banned since 1998, but the law is hard to police. The amount of rubbish picked from British beaches in cleanups sponsored by the Marine Conservation Society increased 77% between 1994 and 2009, much of it chucked from ships. Rivers add mindboggling amounts of plastic into the sea daily; much of it soon comes back to a coast near you. Every year, about 2,000 items of rubbish (most of it plastic) washes ashore for each kilometre of beach in Europe. The Mediterranean is worst affected with up to 18,000 pieces per kilometre per year, so it isn’t surprising that the European commission plan to test their plastic fishing proposal there first. Even the deep sea is not beyond reach. About half of plastics sink, and submarine pilots regularly see bags float past 1,000 metres down.
Plastic at sea isn’t just unsightly. Many seabirds, turtles, fish and others mistake plastic for food: 19 out of every 20 fulmars that wash up dead onto European beaches have a belly full of plastic. Adult birds pick up floating plastics at sea and feed them to their chicks. If plastic was just harmless roughage it would be bad enough. Instead, many plastics come loaded with chemicals like flame retardants, which get passed up the food chain and so can come back to us in the fish we eat. Worse still, plastics accumulate toxic chemicals (such as pesticides found in water) and concentrate them to thousands of times background levels. Over the years, floating plastics break into ever smaller fragments, making it easier to transfer their chemical burden to anything that eats it. In some places, there is more plastic than plankton.
Fishing for plastic is a great idea. It won’t rid the sea of the microscopic soup already adrift, but it could stop things getting worse. There is already a voluntary scheme, Fishing for Litter, which provides collection facilities at ports where rubbish caught can be disposed of rather than thrown back over the side. All of Scotland’s major ports already participate. Given that fishing nets sweep the majority of European waters every year, a dedicated cleanup could clear much of the accumulated trash within a few years. But ultimately, the plastic problem will only be solved if we all use less and make sure none of it reaches the sea.