European fishermen are stepping up action to reduce their impact on the marine environment and KIMO researchers learn more about it

European fishers have taken on net cuttings pollution and KIMO researchers spoke to fishermen in four different countries to learn more

With the fish-buying public increasingly concerned about plastic pollution, European fishermen are stepping up action to reduce their impact on the marine environment. KIMO researchers spoke to fishermen in four countries to learn more.

Beach cleaners will instantly recognise fishermen’s ‘net cuttings’. These are the small pieces of rope and cord found on beaches all over the world. But many people don’t know the story of where they come from, and how they end up in the sea.

It’s a story that starts as many as 29,000 years ago – as evidence shows the world’s oldest known use of fishing nets in South Korea!

Because for as long as nets have been used to catch fish, they have sometimes broken and needed repair. And when they repair nets, fishermen need to cut off small knots and other pieces of rope.

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The technique and skill required to fix nets has been passed down from generation to generation of fishermen. While it has stayed unchanged for centuries, the materials nets are made of today would be unrecognisable for fishermen in the past.

Today’s plastic nets are more durable and longer-lasting than traditional natural fibre materials. But no net is invincible, and repairs are still a familiar part of a fisherman’s work.

The majority of fishermen take care to shake down and sweep up after working on their nets. Yet net cuttings still find their way into the sea and onto local beaches.

A small thing with a big impact

For what may seem like a small thing, the impact of this type of marine litter is surprisingly big. In fact, last year, beach cleaners found more net cuttings than cigarette butts on British beaches.

All over Europe, pieces of rope and cord are consistently among the most common items of beach litter washing up on our shores.

These days people are increasingly concerned about plastic pollution and the potential harm of microplastics getting into the fish we eat. So, more and more fishermen are thinking about the ways they can reduce the number of net cuttings that escape into the sea.

While conducting new research, KIMO spoke to fishermen and harbour staff in Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and the UK to find out what they already do to to prevent net cutting pollution.

Arabelle Bentley, Executive Secretary of KIMO International and co-author of a report on best practices to reduce net cutting pollution said:

“It didn’t surprise us to find that fishers already take this issue very seriously. Nobody has a bigger stake in maintaining healthy seas than the people who depend on them to make a living.”

Ryan Metcalfe, of KIMO Denmark said:

“Fishermen told us about a number of solutions they use. They shared their tips and tricks for stopping net cuttings escaping. Nobody we spoke to would deliberately throw rubbish into the sea. In fact, the majority of fishermen surveyed really care about plastic pollution. However, in the weather conditions that fishermen work in, it is inevitable that some cuttings will get away.”

Easy answers first?

Some of the solutions shared by the fishermen are incredibly simple.

Fixing nets indoors (or below deck) when possible, always having a suitable container nearby to collect waste, and making sure that brooms and other tools were always available to clean up were all common recommendations.

Harbours and boats can include these kinds of practices in their waste management plans.

KIMO also discovered high and low-tech innovations in different ports around Europe.

Different ports, different solutions

The port of Thyborøn in Denmark has a dedicated net mending area and the edge of the quay has a raised concrete bevel, which prevents cuttings from washing into the sea.

A raised concrete bevel prevents net cuttings from washing into the sea.

In Sweden, Öckerö harbour has an equipment building where fishers can borrow tools that can help them with clean-up activities on the quay. Clear signage and the provision of brooms, dustpans, shovels and pails or old fish boxes to collect cuttings are all useful.

In Lerwick Harbour in the UK, the port authority has invested in a backpack vacuum cleaner, which, while more expensive than a broom, has proven to be a quick and efficient means to clean up lost pieces of net and rope cuttings.

In the Netherlands, they take extra care to ensure signage is clear and intelligible, even for fishermen who cannot speak Dutch. Bins that are suitable for net waste have a recognisable symbol to make sorting waste straightforward.

As with many challenges facing a diverse industry like fishing, there is no single one-size-fits-all answer. But it is clear that fishermen and harbour staff all over Europe are thinking about the challenge. And many have already come up with a range of solutions that could be copied elsewhere.

What about something completely new?

Maëlisse Audugé, a student of fishing and environmental management at Le Guilvinec Maritime College in Brittany, France has developed a wearable pouch, which has a knife holder and can be worn while fixing nets.

Audugé is a fisher herself and witnessed the growing impact of plastic pollution first hand. She came up with the idea for her pouch – called a ‘sacabout’ – after discovering net cuttings made up 64% of the litter found on her local beach:

“I saw how small pieces of rope were escaping into the sea when we fixed nets. I wanted to change this and reduce pollution by offering fishermen a tool to collect pieces of nets. It is important for the next generation of fisherman to embrace new, more sustainable practices for the environment.”

Fishermen in Cornwall, UK, have been using a tarpaulin to catch and gather loose cuttings.

Meanwhile fishermen in Cornwall in the UK use a tarpaulin with cords connected to each corner that act like a drawstring. This invention is laid on the ground on the quayside or deck before net mending begins. This trick is especially useful for fixing small nets, for example on lobster pots.