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business models, strategies and technologies

Fishing into plastic – culprit or changemaker?

Fishing operations aren’t losing plastic – apparently they’re dumping it. Do they want to be part of the problem, or part of the solution?

The National Geographic Society and Sky Ocean Ventures have put together the Ocean Plastic Innovation Challenge to source new ideas about ways to deal with plastic waste in our oceans. Laudable, of course, but this doesn’t deal with the mainstream fundamentals that give rise to such problems.

Plastic litter in the world’s oceans has trebled – according to seemingly reliable sources – since 1990, and the fishing industry is the main culprit, according to a study in Nature Communications by the University of Plymouth and the Marine Biological Association in the UK. Scientists had studied data collected by towing a special marine sampler device behind ferries and cargo ships in the North Atlantic for more than 6.5 million nautical miles, from 1957 to 2016. Analysis of the results showed a significant increase in larger plastic items such as bags, rope and netting (macroplastics). In terms of determining cause and origin, it is significant that 68% of the plastic items recorded since 2000 were related to fishing activities (such as nets and lines), compared to 55% before the turn of the millennium.

Counter-intuitive decisions

These figures indicate that the growing volumes of fishing nets, trawls and other equipment abandoned at sea are far from unfortunate accidents and incidental exceptions. It seems somehow counter-intuitive that fishing vessels and their captains should abandon and dump expensively purchased equipment unless absolutely necessary – they (and/or their bosses) are businesspeople, after all.

The University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit is one of the sources of research and documentation that can help us shed such “common sense” assumptions, essential for understanding the real motivators for this persistent, accelerating form of high-impact maritime pollution.

Culprit or changemaker?

This seems an opportunity for fishing operations, large and small, to start making decisions about which side of the fence they want to be on, and which side they want to be perceived as being on.

There are platforms for this, including the Danish Maritime Forum, now expanding into the Global Maritime Forum. However, participation in these kinds of platform for collaborative remedial action is probably not enough to alter business models that allow, enable or encourage fishing vessels to dump their nets, to the detriment of us all.