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Impacts of Plastic Pollution on Marine Life

Insights + Opinion

The revolution of plastic in the fishing industry has fed billions, but left a paucity of life in the oceans and more suffering than we understand. A lost nylon fishing net or tangled mass of hook and line does not stop fishing, the results are horrifying and solutions hard won. 

Lethal lesions and amputation caused by plastic debris and fishing gear on the loggerhead turtle.

The big things living in the ocean usually sink when they die, which is why any estimate of ecological impacts, from propeller scars to entanglement in fishing nets, are nearly impossible. They always underestimate the numbers of true deaths and dismemberment. The ones that are still alive near the surface are the messengers. A recent report from scientists studying loggerhead sea turtles (Caretta caretta) near the Azores, report gruesome amputations from entanglement and intestinal lesions and bleeding from hooks making their way through their bodies.  

So what can fix this?

Lost fishing gear, called ghost nets, are more costly than you might think. Scientist studying the economics of subsidizing recovery of lost nets in Puget Sound reported that the fish and crabs that are caught and die in lost traps and nets was worth more than 12 times the cost of recovery programs. Incentivizing recovery works, but who will pay for it? In Chesapeake Bay researchers have had success with a program to equip crabbers with side-scanning sonar and a grapple hook to snare the hundreds of lost traps that litter the bay. The program works, thanks to taxpayer funds through the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration.

Lethal lesions and amputation caused by plastic debris and fishing gear on the loggerhead turtle.

But in the ocean, where marine mammals and reptiles interact with thousands of tons of plastic waste in international waters, the economic incentives are not there. Voluntary programs for fishermen to bring garbage back from the sea, or report lost gear, are not impactful on a large scale. What is needed are economic incentives, which will largely need to be subsidized by the industries producing the gear in the first place, to create a reward for the return of derelict gear.

A model similar to the plastic bottle redemption program in California would work, where a price-per-pound incentive is responsible for a 72 percent recovery rate for soda bottles. A dollar a pound for lost gear would give fishermen, who are the most likely people to see derelict fishing gear, the incentive to bring it back to land. This kind of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) is working for other products in other industries across the globe. 

With EPR we will see successful removal of ghost nets and traps. Without EPR, we can expect to see more suffering and dwindling numbers of megafauna in our oceans.

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