Fishing regulations are so lax that fishing waste has created a large trash island

The fishing industry is dumping trash in the ocean — and the microplastics trickle up to our bodies

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published September 14, 2022 5:30PM (EDT)

Plastic Pollution in the Ocean (Getty Images/Yunaidi Joepoet)
Plastic Pollution in the Ocean (Getty Images/Yunaidi Joepoet)

Naude and Katja Dreyer became emotional as they shared the story of a seal that they attempted to cut free from a mire of painful, dangerous trash. And they had to do so not just once, but twice.

Through their private organization Ocean Conservation Namibia (OCN), Naude and Katja find Cape fur seals that have been entangled in ocean pollution and spring to the rescue. It is a mission that keeps them quite busy: they have posted dozens of videos in which they chase down roly-poly, chubby and fluffy seals, who almost invariably bellow in protest. The resulting content is almost shamefully entertaining because of its slapstick quality. Unsurprisingly, the OCN YouTube channel has garnered 827K subscribers at the time of this writing — in no small part because the OCN mission is quite serious and, for the seals themselves, a matter of life-and-death.

This particular seal stands out — "a big male," as Naude described him — because his team recognized him from five days earlier. The brawny pinniped sported "a very specific mark, a wound from the previous entanglement where we rescued him before." On the previous Tuesday, Naude and his team had extricated the hapless animal from a white packaging strip commonly used in bait boxes. By the very next Sunday, they had again "caught the seal, removed a strap, and got him up. We could see it was the exact same seal again."

"There are beaches in Hawaii where you can literally watch the plastic come in, with every wave on some beaches... And a lot of it is clearly coming from fishing gear."

Naude repeated himself, seemingly in disbelief: "Within five days he had actually gone and gotten another entanglement, another bait box strap over his neck. Within five days."

Needless to say, both Naude and Katja seemed saddened but not surprised when they learned of a report earlier this month that the infamous North Pacific garbage patch is comprised mostly of discarded fishing gear. Scientists already knew that the North Pacific garbage patch — an island of garbage more than 610,000 square miles (1.7 million square kilometers) large, or roughly twice the size of Texas — was being largely fueled by plastic pollution. The new study reveals, however, that the bulk of this pollution comes from one specific group of polluters: the fishing industry.

John Hocevar, a marine biologist and director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign, told Salon that his organization has already noted that the scourge of plastic pollution in the ocean is inextricably linked to under-regulation of the fishing industry.

"I've seen firsthand how big a problem discarded fishing and aquaculture debris is in some parts of the ocean," Hocevar told Salon. "There are beaches in Hawaii where you can literally watch the plastic come in, with every wave on some beaches. You can see the microplastics with your naked eyes in your hand among the grains of sand that you pick up. And a lot of it is clearly coming from fishing gear."

Hocevar added, "there is not a lot of oversight of fishing vessels at sea."

There are consequences to this lack of oversight, at least when it comes to pollution in the ocean. Joao Sousa — the Senior Programme Officer and Marine Plastics and Plastics Expert at the International Union for Conservation of Nature — broke down the bleakness of the plastic pollution situation with Salon. Fueling the sheer massive quantity of fishing-related pollution is the fact that the plastics commonly used by the fishing industry are not biodegradable. This means that items made from those plastics which enter the ocean will likely stay there forever. Sousa compared the situation facing the planet to the one facing people who have plaque build up in their cardiovascular systems. They can try to avoid further damage to their body, but much of the build up that exists now will likely be there for the rest of their lifetime.

Even worse, what we are seeing with both the North Pacific garbage patch and all of the rest of the free-floating ocean plastic is simply the icing on a grubby, disgusting cake. After all, that is merely the plastic which floated to the surface — and not every piece of plastic floats.

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"It's very difficult to have a full perspective of what goes on if you only account for whatever you catch that is floating," Sousa explained. "Most people don't know because most people think that plastic is 'bottles' and 'bottles float,' which they don't. Half of the plastic produce is actually a higher density than water, so it actually sinks."

Buoyancy is determined by many factors, and so while scientists can visually determine whatever is floating in great big garbage patches, "we do not see what is down there [beneath the floating garbage], and it's absolutely massive."

This naturally has a devastating impact on ocean wildlife. Reflecting on their work rescuing Cape fur seals, Katja Dreyer estimated that "probably excess of 70% of all our entanglements are directly fishing-related." Sometimes the fishing line is recreational rather than industrial, but even then Dreyer categorized it as "fishing-related."

"In Washington's Puget Sound, which is a vitally important region for wild salmon, over 4,000 derelict fishing nets have been removed from Puget Sound over the past decade at a cost of several million dollars."

"For example, one of our biggest culprits is plastic packaging straps, these white plastic package bands, and in this area those are most commonly are used on bait boxes," Dreyer pointed out, referring to Namibia's slice of the southwest African coastline. "They then get discarded into the ocean, or fall overboard, or are somehow dislodged during use. Sometimes they enter the ocean from non-fishing related purposes, like regular shipping and regular packaging."

Emma Helverson is the executive director of Wild Fish Conservancy, a nonprofit group in the Pacific Northwest that is, according to its website, "solely dedicated to the protection and and recovery of the northwest's wild fish." Addressing the issue of fishing-related pollution from the vantage point of a conservationist, Helverson said that marine species in the Pacific Northwest, including wild salmon, are particularly threatened by "derelict gear or 'ghost nets' that are abandoned or lost during commercial fishing." This equipment, as Ocean Conservation Namibia also pointed out, lingers long after its initial purpose has been fulfilled.

"In Washington's Puget Sound, which is a vitally important region for wild salmon, over 4,000 derelict fishing nets have been removed from Puget Sound over the past decade at a cost of several million dollars," Helverson explained. "One concern our staff has is that certifiers do not consider the impact of lost nets as an issue when they are choosing to certify fisheries."

"We did identify, on two different occasions, multiple seals with rope around their necks." 

On the other side of the North American continent, Rachel Miller of the Rozalia Project — a non-profit Miller helped found that is dedicated to cleaning up derelict fishing gear, consumer debris, and microplastic in the Gulf of Maine — had similar stories of animal suffering.

"We encounter debris from fishing all over incredibly remote islands in one of the areas where we do our most work, which is the Gulf of Maine, and the Gulf of Maine has an active trap-based fishery because of the lobster industry," Miller explained. "The buoys, the lines and the traps themselves are vulnerable to a variety of forces that cause them to go from actively fishing to just being trash, and pretty dangerous trash at that."

On one occasion, Miller's team pulled up discarded traps "where there were crabs that were effectively tied to the outside of the trap by line, and even like fishing line, which is kind of disconcerting. The crab is still alive, but tied to the outside of a trap."

Miller added, "We've actually seen that twice." Like Ocean Conservation Namibia, Miller has also seen how fishing gear can harm seals.

"We were doing work to observe and identify the potential for any entangled seals," Miller recalled, and described how "we did identify, on two different occasions, multiple seals with rope around their necks." On one occasion it was fishing line; on the other, "more of a strapping band that is likely also related to the fishing industry."

While it is impossible to remove all of the plastic that is now permanently polluting up the ocean, experts Salon interviewed said one solution is to nibble at the edges of the problem by engaging in clean-up efforts wherever you can. In addition, it is necessary to urge governments to impose hefty fines on companies that dump their non-biodegradable garbage into the environment.

"I think there are a few things that we could do," Hocevar told Salon. "One would be, at the permitting stage, requiring vessels to bring back all of the fishing gear that they take out, and that isn't happening almost anywhere." Hocevar also pointed out that manufacturers of fishing equipment could in theory be required to only use biodegradable material — although that, like insisting on an "audit" of fishing equipment, could only happen if the popular will overcame entrenched resistance from the industries which profit from the status quo.

"We can require fishing gear to have satellite tags on it, making it easier to track and remove gear that is lost," Hocevar added. "As you know even in some cases, even with the best intentions, some fishing gear is going to get lost. One other point is that in most cases, right now, it costs fishing companies money to bring damaged gear back to shore and dispose of it. So they have to pay to dispose of it. And that is part of what leads them to just dump it over the side. Unless there is real regulation and enforcement, with fines that are high enough to compensate, then we're going to continue to see people toss nets overboard."

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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