Catching Cans Instead Of Cod

A pilot project to pay fisherman to haul up trash instead of fish was such a success, it’s being expanded. Since we’ve caught almost all the fish, maybe we can catch all the trash, too.

In the French Rivieria, it’s not uncommon to see a mustached fisherman hauling up his nets at the end of the day. The uncommon part would come in seeing what he’s catching: cans, bags, and plastic trash from the sea.


Last year, the European Union Fisheries Commission performed a pilot project to pay fishermen to ignore the fish and catch the garbage that’s clogging up international waters in the Mediterranean. The fishermen were provided with special nets to capture the debris, and they were paid for their time to trawl. Economists say that the scheme makes economic sense–a recent study showed that nearly 30% of the global fishing industry’s $80 billion annual revenue comes from government subsidies. There are many factors that have contributed to a rise in marine litter: poor waste management practices in ports and marinas, dumping by ships and vessels, and general public attitudes towards littering. 

The program was a success and will be followed by other pilot projects in Belgium, Spain, Germany, Greece, and Austria, says Lone Mikkelsen at the Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Office at the European Commission in Belgium. “The Commission’s proposal for a new European Maritime and Fisheries Fund does include fishing for litter as a possible activity that could be financed,” she says. The projects will be discussed by the European Parliament and a decision to fund more projects will come later this year. Eventually, they hope the project could become self-sustaining as fishermen get money from recycling the litter they find.

Other efforts to get the fishing community involved in ocean-borne cleanups are ramping up. A voluntary effort is headed by KIMO International. After pilot projects in the Netherlands and the North Sea, the organization is working in Scotland. Over 170 boats and 17 harbors now participate in the voluntary Scottish initiative.

20,000 tons of litter is dumped each year into the North Sea, KIMO reports, and of that, 70% ends up on the seabed, while 15% floats on the surface and 15% washes up on beaches. Plastic bags are the worst offender. They break down into tiny pieces and poison fish, birds, and wildlife, causing the death of 100,000 marine mammals and 1,000,000 birds worldwide each year. KIMO says that the trash isn’t just hurting wildlife, it’s also hurting the bottom line of those who work in the fishing industry, to the tune of $50,000 per boat each year through contamination of catches, broken gear, and fouled propellers. Currently only the proportion that washes ashore is targeted by cleanup and awareness campaigns. These fishermen are going for the deep stuff–and making an impact. So far, they are hauling up 100 tons of litter per year.