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Trawling For Trash: EU To Pay Fishermen to Net Plastic

Paying fishermen to catch plastic. This could be the most novel and efficient pairing of protecting and cleaning up a natural resource yet dreamed up. Credit can’t be claimed by any NGO or think tank, environmental group or student coalition. The idea came from a government agency, the EU’s Commission on Fisheries.

The premise is a thing of simplistic beauty: Fishermen are put off when a government tells them to cut their catch to preserve a variety of fish species—the net result is a loss of income. And while the boats sit idle, the seas are filling with plastic trash.

Why not make it worthwhile for fishermen to clean up the water rather than clean out the fish? Plastic fishing sounds like a stretch, but it just might pay off, for both the ocean and for the people who make a living from its bounty.

For the moment, a trial project is being studied off the coast of Greece. But the governments of the U.K., France, Denmark and Germany are pushing the idea to equip fishing boats with nets to pick up plastic floating in the ocean, and deliver the debris onshore to be recycled.

Plenty of plastic is out there waiting to be harvested. The five distinct garbage gyres swirling in the midst of each of the planet’s oceans are growing each year. Ten years ago, researchers found six times more plastic than plankton in the gyres; that ratio has increased to 20 to 1 in some spots. Plastic trash lines coastlines from Zanzibar to Patagonia and everywhere in between.

In a column for the Guardian, my friend Callum Roberts (author of The Unnatural History of the Sea) reports that more plastic was manufactured in the past decade than in all the years leading up to 2000. In the U.K., the Marine Conservation Society reports a 77 percent increase in plastic picked up on beaches between 1994 and 2009, much of it thrown off of ships at sea. The society estimates that roughly 3,000 pieces of plastic show up each year on every mile of U.K. beach. The Mediterranean is worse: 27,000 pieces of rubbish per mile, every year.

A voluntary program for fishing plastic—Fishing for Litter—already exists in the North Sea, with all of Scotland’s ports joining in.

E.U. fisheries commissioner Maria Damanaki announced the fishing-for-plastic plan in part to turn fishermen’s attention from what they perceive to be a growing number of laws that hinder their ability to catch and earn.

The E.U. is considering legislation to limit how much dead bycatch can be tossed back into the sea (a wasteful result of fishermen only wanting to keep bigger, more valuable fish), disallowing imports from countries that don’t meet certain sustainability standards, and new rules restricting who can fish where off the coasts of both Europe and Africa.

Initially, governments will subsidize fishermen who turn their nets toward plastic, but the goal is to create a self-sustaining enterprise with fleets making a living off drop-offs to recyclers. The long-term hope is that plastic may one day replace fish as some fishermen’s main source of income.

(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)

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