Worldwide, an estimated eight million tonnes of plastic waste ends up in our oceans every year. A tenth of this comes from the fishing industry’s discarded, abandoned and lost fishing gear, including nets, floats, buoys and fishing line.
This plastic waste is highly detrimental to the ocean’s marine life and ecosystems. Nets and line can entangle fish, turtles and birds while other plastic debris gets ingested by a variety of animals.
The UN’s solution to fishing gear waste
In a bid to tackle this pollution around the world, various countries have agreed to a set of guidelines set out by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO). These voluntary guidelines will enable countries to mark fishing gear so that it can be easily traced back to the original owners, making the oceans cleaner and safer for navigation at the same time.
The FAO’s Committee on Fisheries is expected to publish the draft in July 2018. This means that local authorities can track the use of fishing gear and locate any illegal and unregulated fishing vessels on the ocean.
“Appropriate marking is an effective tool for improving overall fishing gear management, preventing abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear, facilitating its retrieval and potentially identifying illegal fishing operations,” says FAO assistant director-general for fisheries, Árni Mathiesen.
Plastic pollution in the ocean
Although some fishing gear is purposefully thrown overboard or discarded irresponsibly, often this equipment is lost by mistake. Storms, rough seas and accidents can knock plastic gear into the ocean. Faults with navigation equipment and miscalculations can also cause fishing crews to lose their gear is the expansive waters.
Illegal fishing vessels will dump their gear into the water to avoid detection or to discard the evidence if the authorities show up. These nets and plastic equipment may break up into smaller pieces over time, but will never disappear. An enormous range of organisms, from plankton to whales, will ingest these granules of plastic which will eventually build up in their stomachs and lead to their deaths.
The plastic fishing gear waste is not only a threat to the ecosystem, but to other vessels as well. Concerns over safe navigation have been raised in the Pacific and Indian Oceans after numerous ships’ propellers have become entangled in abandoned nets. Some more serious accidents have also been attributed to plastic waste in the past.
The sheer volume of plastic pollution in the ocean has spurred governments and the fishing industry to address the urgent need to recover fishing waste. Effective systems of regulation and management will come into existence as a result of the FAO’s guidelines this year.
Meeting the new standards
Although the FAO’s guidelines have a global scope, individual countries will be responsible for meeting the new standards. Developing countries will need additional support with this task, especially in the small-scale fishing industries.
Ports will need to develop disposal facilities for fishing gear that is affordable and effective for all scales of commercial fishing. GPS trackers will make it easy to trace lost buoys and gear, but these systems will be expensive for small-scale fishers.
There are complex issues that will arise once the guidelines are released so the FAO has already established a few pilot projects that will bring these issues to light and solutions can be developed before the draft is published. Feedback from the community and industry will be important to gauge whether the guidelines have any benefit for seaside communities and the fishing sector.
Image © Joshua Oates
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