Conwy harbour

Rubbish in the marine environment can be particularly damaging as it often has free movement and along the way, many pieces get eaten by or entrap marine animals. What role do the commercial Welsh fishers play in this global issue and can the Welsh Government help them safely dispose or recycle their old fishing gear?

Fishers are often painted in a bad light when it comes to marine pollution. Images of dolphins, sharks and turtles trapped in discarded fishing nets are widely publicised and show proof of some of the horrors of the fishing industry.

I have personally witnessed this horror first-hand and have rescued turtles from old, discarded fishing nets. But how relatable are these stories? And what can we do as a responsible society to make the fishing industry a little eco-friendlier?

As a Fisheries Scientist, this is an issue that is close to my heart and I was encouraged when APEM were commissioned to conduct a study to further understand the use of commercial fishing gear and disposal needs within the Welsh fishing community.

The aim of the study was to provide the Welsh Government with more information to enable them to better help the Welsh fishers safely dispose of (and hopefully recycle) their fishing gear.

The approach we took

APEM went about gaining information in a variety of ways. We started by meeting a group of industry professionals and some of the Welsh Fishermen’s Association. At this meeting, we exchanged ideas of how best to ensure the project could be a success.

From here we researched the Welsh commercial fishing industry, contacted conservation organisations operating in Wales, visited Welsh fishing ports and put together a survey for fishers, harbour masters and fishing gear suppliers.

Through the research we discovered that the Welsh commercial fishing fleet is mostly comprised of small boats; 90% of the fishing vessels used in Wales are under 10m. Some of the more popular things they catch include whelks, lobsters, crabs, prawns (caught using pots) and scallops (generally caught using dredges).

Many of the fishers we spoke to used pots and would repair rather than dispose of them when damaged, extending the life span of their gear.

Larger fishing operators would often sell their end-of-life fishing gear to smaller businesses, which could repair and make use of second-hand gear, as fishing gear is one of their bigger expenses. Fishers generally try their best to minimise gear loss, and spend bad weather days repairing their nets etc.

A conservation organisation known as Neptune’s Army of Rubbish Cleaners works closely with fishers and regularly dive areas, find and retrieve lost gear and at times – return the gear to their rightful owners.

Many fishers were found to actively collect abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) and general refuse found in the sea. If these items are left, they can become tangled in their gear or the boat’s propeller and could reduce fishing potential by harming habitats and wildlife.

This is reinforced by fishers’ awareness of the impact of plastics on the ocean along with societal pressure to improve responsible fishing practices.

There is still a way to go, but I am happy to report that many fishers I met are concerned about their environment, actively help reduce ALDFG and focus on the repair and reuse aspect to ensure that their fishing gear can be kept in use and out of a landfill, for as long as possible.

Unfortunately, we still have more work to do in ensuring that there are adequate recycling and disposal facilities that are easily accessible. While many of the hard plastics can be recycled, nets and ropes often prove more challenging, and few organisations are able to recycle such materials.

Through this work, APEM helped the Welsh government gain a better understanding of the types of fishing gear used by Welsh fishers and some of the issues and perceptions surrounding the disposal of it.

Interacting with stakeholders, industry, and government bodies on fisheries-related issues to enhance understanding, provide advice and guidance is all in a day’s work for the APEM fisheries team, and this was certainly a very interesting project.

Many fishers in Wales take the health and cleanliness of their work environment very seriously. Returning home with a bag of collected ocean rubbish onboard is the norm for some fishers. I was impressed by how passionate many of the fishers I spoke to were about their environment and wish more people routinely collected the rubbish they saw on their daily walks.

APEM has its own in-house Cash for Trash scheme. When our team find rubbish whilst on field surveys, they are encouraged to collect it and for each bag of rubbish collected, APEM donates £1 to charity. This results in our environment being a little bit cleaner and an awesome charity being supported.

Find out more about our Cash for Trash scheme and the APEM fisheries team and the projects we do here.

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APEM are a global environmental consultancy providing independent advice and guidance to support government and environmental regulatory guidelines.