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Showcases / Tackling the plastic threat to our seas

‘Ghost gear’ is a serious problem; we need more cooperation for healthy seas, writes Anton Lazarus of KIMO International

Discarded fishing gear picked up by a local fishing vessel a few weeks ago.

LOCAL fishermen have recently raised concerns about discarded fishing gear in waters around Shetland. Councillors passed a motion on the topic last month.

While much more can and should be done, Shetland Islands Council is already at the heart of European efforts to clean up our seas.

SIC is a founding member of KIMO International – a network of local governments working together for healthy seas, cleaner beaches and thriving coastal communities.

In fact, SIC is not just a member of KIMO – it also hosts the international secretariat here in Shetland. Last May, we welcomed local politicians from all over Europe to an international meeting in Lerwick.

By working together with other local governments from around the North Sea, the SIC is able to push for national and international action to preserve and protect the marine environment we depend on.

KIMO represents coastal communities in important decision making processes, lobbies for changes in the law and runs projects and campaigns that make a difference at the local level.

Shetland is represented in KIMO by four councillors, including convenor Malcolm Bell and Andrea Manson, who sit on the KIMO International and UK boards respectively.

Thanks to the Fishing for Litter initiative some of the litter discarded into the seas is being taken ashore by fishermen. Photo: KIMO

Fishing for Litter

In Shetland, fishermen in Lerwick, Scalloway and Cullivoe take part in KIMO’s Fishing for Litter scheme, which provides fishermen with hardwearing bags to collect marine litter they find in their nets. The scheme covers the costs of disposal.

Thanks to the work of fishermen, over the last 15 years Fishing for Litter has landed more than 1,600 tonnes of waste in Scotland alone. That’s all rubbish that would otherwise still be floating out at sea, or washing up on our beaches.

This popular scheme, which was first trialled here in Shetland, is now being run in at least eight other countries.

A plastic threat

Marine litter comes from many sources. While a significant amount can be traced back to the fishing industry, the majority originates from land-based activities. And it’s more than just a threat to our natural world, our pristine beaches, and the jobs they support.

Debris floating on the surface or hidden underwater is a potential threat to vessels and a hazard to seafarers.

And as if that wasn’t enough; most of the rubbish now found in our seas is made out of plastic.

Unlike natural materials, plastic can take hundreds of years to break down, and when it does, tiny pieces of microplastic remain. Eventually, after working its way up the food chain, this plastic finds its way into our bodies – with unknown consequences for our health.

In fact, scientists have recently estimated that an average person could be ingesting the equivalent of a credit card’s amount of plastic every week.

By cooperating through KIMO, local governments like SIC push national governments and international decision makers to do more to tackle plastic pollution and other marine litter – whether it’s been produced on land or at sea.

What is ‘ghost gear’?

When fishing gear is accidentally – or deliberately – washed into the sea and lost, this is known as ‘ghost gear’. These days, most fishing gear is made of plastic.

Through KIMO, SIC works with the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, a cross-sectoral alliance with members from business, government and NGOs.

In Shetland, most fishermen and the wider fishing industry work hard, not just to clean up waste through Fishing for Litter, but to prevent waste ever getting into the environment in the first place.

For example, a recent KIMO report highlighted best practice to reduce the impact of net cuttings – the often very small piece of rope that can be washed into the sea when nets are repaired.

Lerwick Harbour’s backpack vacuum cleaner is held up as an example of what other ports could do.

Local fishing communities care deeply about the marine environment that supports them, which is why KIMO’s work promotes cooperation between concerned citizens, local government and the wider fishing industry.

Gill netters

Recent concerns raised in Shetland have highlighted waste from foreign-owned gill netting vessels.

It is a sensitive subject, and one where many hope progress can be made as part of a future agreement on fishing as part of the UK government’s ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Whatever the result of those talks, KIMO will continue to drive cooperation between local governments in eight European countries, representing more than five million citizens.

Together, we will continue to unite stakeholders and find common solutions to shared challenges.

And there is a least one thing everyone can agree on: no boats should ever be dumping fishing gear or other waste in the seas around Shetland – or indeed, anywhere else.

More information about KIMO can be found on the organisation’s website at kimointernational.org. KIMO can also be followed on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/kimointl/ 


Anton Lazarus is the communications, marketing and media officer for KIMO International and is based at the council’s headquarters at North Ness.