SEAwise plastic European waters

The amount of plastic in European waters has almost doubled in the past decade, according to a study carried out by SEAwise

The amount of plastic in European waters has almost doubled in the past decade, according to research carried out as part of the SEAwise project – an international project working towards effective implementation of Ecosystem Based Fisheries Management in Europe. 

Charting the increase in marine litter across European waters since 2012, the findings come just days after UN talks on tackling plastic waste ended in Paris with an agreement to draft a global plastics treaty by November.

The research, which was led by Italian research institute COISPA, saw the SEAwise team analyse data from fishing hauls around Europe to estimate changes in the amount of litter on the seafloor over time, and identify marine litter hotspots. A sink for marine litter, the study’s findings show a steep increase in marine plastic on Europe’s seabeds, with the number of plastic items detected per square kilometre in the Northeast Atlantic increasing from 20 to 35 between 2012 and 2021.

Linking the first ecosystem-scale impact assessments of maritime activities with the status of fish stocks, a key focus of SEAwise is to provide a comprehensive overview of ecosystem effects of and on fisheries in Europe. Marine litter is increasingly recognised as one of the main human pressures on the marine ecosystem, and was highlighted as a key area of concern by fisheries stakeholders in earlier scoping work carried out by SEAwise.

Conducted as part of one of the project’s key work streams ‘Ecological Effects of Fisheries’, the research also analysed different types of litter accumulating on the seabed, including the subcategories fishing-related litter and single use plastic (SUP). Like plastic, the amount of fishing-related litter and SUP has increased sharply over the same period.

Data from the Baltic Sea through to the Northeast Atlantic, and from the Bay of Biscay to the Mediterranean shows that across all areas studied by SEAwise, plastic is by far the most prevalent form of marine litter. According to the study, up to 90% of hauls in the Northeast Atlantic and Baltic include plastic, with trawls five times more likely to bring up an item made of plastic than other waste materials such as glass, metal or rubber.

The study shows this rising sea of plastic has been mirrored by a similar increase in litter posing a threat to marine wildlife, most commonly by entanglement or ingestion – the latter also having implications for human welfare. For all litter types, shallow waters were found to be hotspots in several areas. Investigating the overlap between fishing effort and marine litter, the researchers found some links, though this, they say, was inconclusive and requires further study.

Though mandated under the Marine Strategy Framework Directive (MSFD), measures for acceptable litter levels–or threshold values–are still lacking around Europe. Carried out by SEAwise participants across several European regions using existing evaluation tools, this research could be used by policymakers to devise appropriate targets to address marine litter, say the researchers.

The approach could also be used to ensure campaigns geared towards addressing the issue of marine litter ‘on the water’ are targeted at addressing regional litter hotspots and risk areas. For instance, Fishing for Litter campaigns running across Europe that see fishers bring thousands of tonnes of marine litter back to shore, every year.

COISPA scientist Maria Teresa Spedicato, who led the research, highlights, “This research carried out from the Baltic Sea through the North East Atlantic, the Bay of Biscay and Mediterranean to the eastern Ionian Sea, using data from trawl and beam-trawl surveys, shows we have tools that could be used to set policy targets aimed at addressing marine litter. Across all areas, we were able to capture and compare trends in marine litter on the seafloor. This means, for example, we can say that the abundance of fishing-related litter is relatively comparable in all areas, making it possible to illuminate risks of entanglement for marine species and feed into management measures to address these.”

Work theme lead Professor Dave Reid of the Marine Institute, Ireland states, “Trawl surveys show that in most areas (around half) the plastic litter mainly comes from commercial fishing activity. In the Mediterranean, SUP is more dominant. Probably the main issue from that is “ghost fishing” by abandoned nets, that keep on catching fish [despite not being used actively]. SEAwise will be investigating this in the next part of the project.”

Source: Press Release

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