Fishermen Now Looking For The Trash That Got Away

A pilot program that launched in the spring pays European anglers if they bring trash back to shore. Six months later, how is the program faring?

Fishermen Now Looking For The Trash That Got Away
Flickr user ingridtaylar

You might have heard of trash mining. But what about “trash fishing”?


Facing mounting plastics pollution in the Mediterranean, the European Union is turning to those closest to the problem: fishermen who plow the waters every day. The Waste Free Oceans project pays trawler owners to collect waste, using big booms attached to the back of their boats, and bring it back to land, where it can be sold to recycling companies.

The scheme, which started as a pilot in France in May, has already been extended to Belgium and the Netherlands, with more countries to follow in 2012. It builds on another project that pays fishermen to dispose of plastic waste on land, rather than throwing it into the sea. That scheme, which has been going since 1990, has collected 200 million tons of garbage so far.

WFO was set up by the European Plastics Converters Association, and individual companies, but has been strongly supported by the European Commission, the EU’s executive body. “We need to do something about the unacceptable amount of rubbish,” Maria Damanaki, EU fisheries commissioner, said in May. “Fishermen already have the local knowledge to know where the currents take the debris and the expertise to collect it.” Research last year found that there were 250 billion pieces of plastic in the Mediterranean, plus 500 tons dissolved on the surface. About 80 percent is thought to come from land sources.

The WFO project is not just about litter, though. Damanaki wants to find ways of increasing fishermen’s income, in order to offset the impact of a policy to ban “discards” of unwanted fish. Currently, European trawlers send back up to two-thirds of what they catch, or roughly 1 million tons a year, either because of quotas, under-sized fish, or because they are not the targeted species. Campaigners say discarding is both wasteful and unethical (most of the fish die). But the ban could hurt livelihoods if it forces fishermen to catch uneconomic fish.

“Much of the litter collected will be recyclable, so this will also have an extra benefit for the economy. On the other hand, fishermen will be able to engage in an alternative activity which will bring them additional income, especially during the time periods when they stop fishing,” said Damanaki.

WFO’s goal is to be totally self-financing, with revenues from recycling funding the cleanup–which may be a long way off. But while the EU looks to reduce the amount of waste entering the sea in the first place, and fishermen are stuck for cash, trash fishing could have a future.

About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.