Plastics in the Marine Environment

The fishing industry, and the public generally, are much more conscious than earlier generations about the impact of plastics on the marine environment.

Polyethylene, polypropylene and nylon nets and ropes contribute to this non-biodegradable marine litter when lost or discarded at sea.

Although, according to the Marine Conservation Society beach survey only around 12% of marine litter is derived from fishing vessels (the balancing 88% being litter which has its origins on shore or from merchant shipping) this is not an issue that the fishing industry can be complacent about. Apart from potential damage to the marine ecosystem, the reputational damage could be immense.

Call it enlightened self-interest if you like, but a number of important initiatives initiated by the fishing industry and its allies are well underway.

Fishing for Litter

Uniquely, fishing as well as bringing its own plastic litter back to port, is in a position to do the same to shore-based litter that gets caught in its nets. The Fishing for Litter South West project has been underway for several years. A similar project is run in Scotland. Thus, the two main fishing areas in the country are covered by this innovative and effective approach to reducing marine litter. Work is also underway in Northern Ireland

Similar projects have been established in adjacent member states.

The North West Waters, the North Sea and Market advisory councils are likewise working on the issue.

Although there is some way to go to provide collection infrastructure in every small port, in fact a huge amount of plastic waste is taken ashore and disposed of informally as part of normal practice.

Kimo plays an important coordinating role in initiatives to reduce marine litter

And at the local level, there are multiple initiatives such as the one run by South Devon Shellfishermen here

And at the international level efforts are also underway here


Huge efforts are therefore underway to collect marine litter. But it is obviously preferable to avoid plastic ending up in the marine environment at all. Like so many homes and businesses, fishing has become highly dependent on synthetic materials. There is no easy switch that can be flicked to move to non-plastic materials, like sisal, cotton and manila. People tend to have forgotten the sheer amount of tar that was used in the past to preserve gear made from these natural fibres.

Over a hundred years, whole fishing systems, vessels and winches have been designed around the integral strength and resistance to abrasion provided by synthetic ropes, twines and nets.

Multiple initiatives are, however, underway to ensure that all fishing gear is recyclable after the end of its useful life. In the South West the fishing industry is working with Oddessy Innovation to recycle end of life gear. Seafish, has been prominent in research and practical initiatives to understand and deal with plastic litter in the marine environment. At the practical end of the spectrum, Seafish has led a project based in Brixham to strip trawl nets down to their component parts for recycling. There is also a project underway to make the best use of the trawl mesh repair sections.

This is all progress towards the circular economy in fishing, with the goal of 100% materials used recycled. This is a huge challenge as at present there are no recyclable substitutes for some of the elements used in fishing gears but no-one should doubt the efforts which are being made.

This is true whether the fishing gear is used aboard large and small vessels and whether the gear is mobile trawls or static nets and pots. The challenges and scales may be different but the goal is the same: the ultimate elimination of plastics ending up in the seas and oceans.

Government Industry and Research

The NFFO participated, earlier this year in an important intergovernmental symposium on initiatives to reduce plastics in the marine environment.

Collaborative initiatives such as this are also underway.

Mindset and Overcoming Obstacles

The cultural change required to see marine litter and especially plastics as a form of anti-social self-harm is well under way within the fishing industry. The main obstacles are reception facilities in every port because while some ports are ahead of the game, others have yet to see the light. Funding for reception facilities is a facet of the issue too.

Ultimately this is a matter of mindset and priority and a will to overcome the obstacles encountered.