Germans fish for litter

This Northern Gannet was one of several found strangled by discarded fishing gear in Cornwall this spring. Photo: Tracey Williams (Newquay Beachcombing).
This Northern Gannet was one of several found strangled by discarded fishing gear in Cornwall this spring. Photo: Tracey Williams (Newquay Beachcombing).
BirdLife have backed an innovative scheme in Germany to encourage fishermen to dispose of their dangerous litter away from the coast.

It’s summertime, so it’s only natural that people are making a bee-line for coasts and beaches. As if jostling for space with other holidaymakers on the beach and in the sea wasn’t enough, there’s also marine litter to contend with. This may seem ‘just rubbish’ to us, but for seabirds its effects can be devastating.

Some of the species threatened by marine litter are protected under the EU’s Birds and Habitats Directives, the laws which protect specific species and habitats across the Continent. Migratory species such as Roseate Tern, which nests in Europe in summer, also feed in the garbage-filled wintering area in the Gulf of Guinea off the West African coast. Northern Gannets on Heligoland Island in the German Bight build their nests from degraded plastic string, ropes discarded by boats and abandoned fishing gear, in which chicks and adults can get entangled or strangled. The decades-old Northern Fulmar monitoring programme in the North Sea has shown that 95 per cent of the stomachs of dead fulmars contain plastic, which remains undigested for a lifetime filling their bellies like a cruel diet pill.

Beach cleaning measures are not enough, as the seas are now full of litter from seabed to surface, and much of it is already in the food chain. This is why combating marine litter before it reaches the sea is fundamental to ensure we can achieve ‘Good Environmental Status’ (GES) of EU Seas by 2020, as set out in the EU’s Marine Strategy Framework Directive (legislation that binds Member States to set up national targets and actions to achieve GES).

In Germany, a project called Fishing for Litter is run by the BirdLife partner the Nature and Biodiversity Conservation Union (NABU), in co-operation with the fishing and public sector. The project is simple: fishermen receive large collection bags in which they collect the garbage that gets caught in their fishing gear. They bring the bags back to the port, where the waste is sorted, analysed and disposed of for free.

However, actions have to be taken to stop the waste at source, especially items like plastic bags, disposable tableware, bottle caps and cigarette butts. To prevent these items being discarded, NABU and the German Federal Environmental Agency run a project to encourage local waste disposal measures, hopefully stopping litter from entering the North and Baltic Seas. 

Plastic producers and equipment manufacturers have a special responsibility to reduce litter: they must invest in sustainable product design, and manufacture and promote durable products that consume fewer resources and are reusable. They must also disclose the ingredients and additives used in manufacturing. All future plastic must be recycled and at the same time be truly biodegradable.

But you don’t need to be a factory owner to make a difference – you can start yourself while on holiday. Going to the beach? Then buy durable products that can be reused, use your own bag and avoid plastic bags at the supermarket, and dispose of your waste considerately. And since disposable takeaway packaging causes litter in the oceans, why not sit down at a café and enjoy your coffee from a real cup?