Plastic pollution in the ocean from lost fishing nets and massive amounts of household litter, such as bottles, cups, straws, bags and much else reaching the ocean mostly through rivers has hit public consciousness. Everybody has seen the pictures of birds, turtles and even marine mammals miserably starved to death with their stomachs full of plastic.

The conference on "The effect of marine litter on fisheries and oceans" was organised by the European Parliament Intergroup on “Climate Change, Biodiversity and Sustainable Development” at the EP in Brussels on 5 September 2018 to explore and discuss the new European Commission proposals on ways to tackle marine litter.

In accordance to the increased demand and necessity of reducing waste in the ocean, with particular focus on plastic, the EU Parliament put forward a legislative proposal to address the single use plastics (SUP) and other plastic contained in fishing gear. This proposal is part of the European Plastics Strategy and follows the initiative launched in June on the top 10 SUP found on the EU beaches (food containers, cups for beverages, cotton bud sticks, cutlery-plates-stirrers-straws, balloons and their sticks, packets and wrappers, beverage containers, their caps and lids, tobacco product filters, wet wipes and sanitary towels, and lightweight plastic carrier bags).

The measures proposed includes the labelling of SUP, marking of fishing gear and the obligation of plastic producers to cover the costs of waste collection and recycle, and awareness campaigns.

The inclusion of fishing gear in the proposal is of high relevance; previous research found that marine plastic waste originally contained in fishing gear accounts for 27% of 80% of marine litter plastic in the ocean.

Despite the heavy rain that hit Brussels in the afternoon, the turnout of people at the conference was high and the large meeting room was almost filled. The big audience was composed of delegates from environmental associations, governmental organisations, fishing associations and stakeholders from the plastic and SUP producer industry.

The introduction and initial remarks to the two-hours conference were delivered by the Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) Ricardo Serrão Santos and Maria Spyraki. She summarised the main points of the Strategy, such as labelling SUP with clear indications on recycling and reuse procedures, and the necessity of engagement of local and regional authorities.

The keynote speech was delivered by Bernhard Friess, Director of ‘Maritime Policy and Blue Economy’ Directorate, DG MARE, who emphasised how facilitating the collection, recycling and reuse of plastic will contribute forward transition to a Circular Economy. Regarding the plastic contained in fishing gear, he also remembered the commitment of fishermen to collaborate toward ocean health, being them the first to understand how this is strictly connected to their activity and profit.

Massimo Paolucci MEP and rapporteur for the ‘single-used plastics’ proposal, deepened some main points which required further clarification. All the products that have alternatives will be banned and there will be a system of deposit and refunds for fishing gear. A video message by Alain Cadec MEP, Chair of the EP's Fisheries Committee and co-chair at the event, promoted initiatives, such as the one started by his organisation, ‘Waste Free Oceans’, which collects and transforms ocean plastic into new products.

The first panel discussion focused on the national and international efforts to tackle marine litter.

Joanna Toole, from FAO's Fishing Operations and Technology Branch, reported on the progress made at intergovernmental level towards addressing abandoned, lost and otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) and next steps for implementation. She highlighted the importance of making the fisheries industry and aquaculture more sustainable and assess food safety risks. She introduced the Voluntary Guidelines on Marking of Fishing Gear (report published July 2018) on all gear for any activity to reduce ALDFG and fight IUU fishing. The intention is to create a consistent system between countries, therefore aligning already existing marking regulations to a unique standardised system). These Guidelines take into account the special requirements of emerging countries and small-scale fisheries.

Christine Haffner-Sifakis, Strategic Policy & Programme Officer of the UN Environment Programme, presented the progress on UN Environment’s work on healthy, resilient and productive oceans. She specified the need to develop a monitoring methodology to keep recorde of the microplastics present in the environment.

Hæge Andenæs from the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment, mentioned the steps already implemented by Norway, a non-EU country with fisheries agreements and the commitment to work together with the EU. In addition, in Norway there are already measures to ban micro-fibres from the textile industry and enhance the eco-design of the clothing sector.

The second panel of the day on the key sources of marine litter and potential responses was composed by stakeholders.

Nadia Moalla Gil, from the Spanish Fishing Confederation (Cepesca), presented the programme implemented in the northern coastal regions of Spain, where they train and advise people involved in the fishing industry, including women and people living in rural areas, about how to manage marine litter in transition toward a Circular Economy. Janica Borg, WWF, delivered a highly impactful talk on the actual risks and issues caused by marine litter to environment, animals and humans.

In Europe rivers do not carry anywhere near as much plastic into the ocean as in some Asian countries often lacking effective garbage collection and management (see picture to the right). However, the ocean is one and we can not be indifferent to the pollution generated in Europe or elsewhere.

The final presentation was delivered by Dr. Dominic Hogg, Eunomia Research & Consulting, who pointed out that some SUP and other plastic items are easily flushable and they require major information about how to dispose of them. In addition, despite the interest and focus on SUP and fishing gear the main source of plastic waste in the ocean are automotive tyres which outnumber all the others, and the pollution they provoke needs to be addressed.

Several questions were addressed to the panellists about different topics, including the on such issues as bioplastic, fishing gear marking operation and the lack of interventions for plastic waste produced in aquaculture. The latter is a topic that will be soon examined in more depth in the legislative proposal.

The conference closed with almost 40 minutes delay underlining how these topics still need clarifications and additional discussions between actors.

The overall conclusion was that alternatives to single use plastic objects exist and they need to be pushed. By enforcing new regulations, which involve also producer responsibility and the willingness of fishers to collaborate in fighting ocean pollution should well be a good step towards a circular economy. That would also be in tune with the increasing awareness about the threats of marine litter among citizens, who are now developing a new ecological consciousness.

See also our situation assessment from 2012.

Report by Dr. Simona Boschetti.