Fishing Is Killing the Ocean–Not Plastic Straws



Image Credit: Jordi Chias

Karyna Hetman

In recent years, many efforts have been made to reduce the amount of plastic waste polluting the ocean through encouraging the use of reusable grocery bags and paper or metal straws as opposed to plastic. However, the use of plastic in our daily lives isn’t as big of a contributor to ocean pollution as we think. Rather, the unethical means of mass industrial fishing are to blame for endangering the marine life of our ocean. 

Overfishing for commercial use in itself is a big issue since fish populations are fading out as a result of catching fish at a rate faster than they can reproduce to keep their population thriving. In fact, a study from an international team of ecologists and economists predicts that by the year 2048 the oceans will be fishless. This creates a big problem not only for the endangerment of marine life but for humans as well. This is because the ocean plays an essential role in regulating Earth’s temperature, and it accounts for the creation of 50% of Earth’s oxygen. While overfishing significantly contributes to this issue, the waste left behind from fishing boats is the biggest problem. For example, it has been estimated that, per year, fishing boats leave behind more than 700,000 tons of waste that contaminates ocean wildlife long after the fishing boats have caught their fish. This goes to show that the fishing industry is a bigger threat to the ocean than everyday plastic. Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, says that even if every plastic straw along the coastlines around the world were to be washed into the ocean, they’d only “account for about 0. 03% of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year”. This calls for more action to be taken towards stopping the harmful methods the fishing industry uses to catch fish rather than being overly conscious of the use of plastic straws.

The most common method of fishing used today is aquafarming. This is done either inland or in fenced cages in the ocean, where fish will spend their whole lives being raised and fed for two years until they are killed and sold to be eaten. One of the issues with aquafarming is that it causes overfishing, since most of the fish in these farms are predators and need to eat smaller fish to survive, causing a demand for fishermen to catch even more fish. In fact, it takes five pounds of fish to produce just one pound of salmon to sell from aquafarming. The other big issue with this method of catching fish is that the water in the caged aquafarms becomes toxic with antibiotics, pesticides, parasites, and feces. The contaminated water then spreads throughout the ocean, harming wildlife outside the aquafarms. This harmful occurrence led to a study that found a 2-acre fish farm can produce as much waste as a town of 10,000 people. 

Another threatening technique used for commercial fishing is bottom trawling. This is when fishing boats drag large nets trailing along the ocean floor to scrape up fish. The issue with this tactic is that it doesn’t just catch the intended fish, but the huge nets swallow up anything in their path, crushing delicate ocean habitats. The United Nations estimated bottom trawling to be at blame for 95% of ocean damage. Similarly, longline fishing is another technique that wreaks havoc on ecosystems. In this method, fishing boats drag along lengthy fishing lines reaching 50 feet long through the water with multiple sharp hooks. These hooks catch and kill species unintended for catch such as different fish, sea birds, turtles, and whales, which are later thrown overboard as “bycatch”. Both bottom trawling and longline fishing are wasteful as they harm more marine life than the intended batch of fish to catch.

Ghost gear (unattended plastic nets, lines, and traps left behind from fishing boats) is one of the most harmful pollutants of the ocean. According to Global Citizen, plastic straws make up less than 1% of the ocean’s plastic waste, and on the other hand ghost gear accounts for 10%. In the case of bottom trawling, the nets used to catch fish often get left behind, scouring the ocean for marine wildlife to fall victim to it’s strangling rope. These nets can swallow an estimated 30 to 40 unsuspecting marine animals, and over 100,000 sea lions, seals, and even large whales are killed by them yearly. “There is no reason for ghost nets”, says Guilio Banazzi, CEO of Aquafil. “We should be able to recycle 100% of nets. We have the capacity; we have the technology.” Longlines are another example of ghost gear as they can get separated from their boats, wandering around the ocean, killing wildlife with their sharp hooks for as long as they’re left behind, which in most cases is eternity since they’re not retrieved.

There is some hope for salvation of ocean life with organizations and corporations trying to make reparations. For example, communities in the Philippines are working together with NetWorks, a London-based conservation team, to upcycle discarded fishing nets into carpets. Additionally, Guilio Bannazi, as mentioned before, has a plan to enforce a “global registry of fishing gear” so that “when the fishing communities buy their nets, it is logged and registered, and at the end of the useful life of the gear, they are responsible for returning it for recycling.” 

In conclusion, while pinching down on our use of everyday plastic is still helpful to saving the oceans from pollution, it is miniscule in comparison to the disaster left behind from industrial fishing. So instead of hyperfocusing on the use of plastic straws, perhaps be more conscious about the fish in your diet, and the unethical route it took from the ocean to your plate.