05 May 2011

Marine Litter: Fishing for Answers

I have long been appalled by what we are doing to our oceans. Not content with taking out more fish than is sustainable - a mathematically stupid thing to do - we have also turned this amazing, fundamental resource into the world's dustbin. The most visible result of that is the clutch of gyres of marine litter whose dimensions are almost beyond comprehension - and growing.

Closer to home, I have also looked on with rising anger at how European fisheries are mismanaged, not least because of the absurd practice of discards, which results in huge quantities of fish being thrown back into the sea. That is again insane from the viewpoint of sustainability, and a perfect symbol of the irrational way fishing is conducted in Europe.

So I was delighted to hear that the EU fisheries commissioner, Maria Damanaki, wants to stop it:

She wants a ban – which she says is necessary to preserve fish stocks – within two years, as part of a wide-ranging reform of the European common fisheries policy.

Of course, nothing is simple: the fishing industry seems incapable of recognising its own best interests, and is against an idea that would enable them to preserve their industry and jobs in the long run:

at a hearing in Brussels on Tuesday afternoon, held by Damanaki and attended by fishermen's representatives, green groups and consumer groups, some members of the fishing industry vehemently opposed the plans, while others suggested the proposals should be modified.

But something rather amazing has happened. Damanaki has not only come up with a way to address some of the concerns of the fishermen, she has at the same time found a way to start reducing marine litter in the Mediterranean:

I am working with my colleague Janez Potočnik, who is responsible for Environment; we have just been to Athens together, on Friday, to meet public authorities and representatives from environmental organisations and the industry and discuss concrete opportunities to address the issue.

We think to limit –or even ban – the use of plastic bags in retailing. Several EU countries have already put in place different mechanisms to try to achieve this: in Italy plastic bags were banned since the beginning of the year; Ireland was the first country to take action imposing a duty of around 0,22€ on plastic bags since 2002; in Belgium, there is a voluntary agreement of the retailing sector not to issue or at least to charge plastic bags. There is consensus among EU member states on the need to take up the challenge and the Commission is now examining the problem and its possible solutions.

The EU can also offer opportunities to remedy to the present situation: the European Fisheries Fund, for instance, offers now the possibility of developing projects that may contribute to the preservation of the marine environment, such as “fishing for litter” initiatives. Such projects are already ongoing in some countries: in France, among other initiatives, a pilot project will be launched at the end of May, whereby marine litter will be collected by fishermen and sent for treatment.

The fisheries fund can also co-finance port reception facilities in cooperation with the local authorities and municipalities, to collect the waste of fishing and recreational boats.

This is brilliant. Instead of simply telling fishermen they must - for their own good - do things differently, and do different things, it offers a concrete way for them to earn extra money. At the same time, it mobilises precisely those people who are best able to address the problem of marine litter - and avoids all the costs and complications of creating some new task force to do so.

Although it would be naive to expect these measure to be implemented without a fight, I am incredibly heartened to see such creative thinking from the European Commission. This kind of smart approach that turns a problem into a solution elsewhere is exactly what we need for the difficult times ahead. It is vital that we as European citizens support such moves and not let bureaucracy and lobbying stymie them.

Until the last few weeks I'd not really followed Maria Damanaki's work in the European Commission, since I had no expectation that anything so radical was about to emerge from her deparment, but these recent announcements have certainly made me sit up and take notice.

The fact that just a few hours after I tweeted about these marine litter proposals I received a reply from her (or her office) is also highly encouraging, since it suggests someone at ease in the new world of highly-connected and open politics. That, too, is vitally important for the Europe's future, notably its digital side: let's hope she can infect some of her less clueful colleagues.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca.

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