Dr Ben Drakeford leads the University’s mission to help reduce marine litter and ‘ghost fishing’ through the development of biodegradable fishing gear.
Do you remember seeing a photo of a sea turtle with a plastic straw up its nose? It’s hard to forget such a horrific photo showing the impact of plastics in the natural environment.
But plastic straws account for a tiny fraction, less than 1%, of total plastics in the oceans. A much bigger threat to marine wildlife is in the form of fishing gear.
Fishing gear, like nets, pots and traps, account for 27% of marine litter. Most are made from synthetic fibres and plastics, and can last for hundreds of years. This has grave consequences for water quality, wildlife and biodiversity.
When fishing gear is lost or discarded in the ocean, it causes significant problems for marine ecosystems. It damages habitats and entangles and kills fish, marine mammals and seabirds long after it has been left behind – what is now known as ‘ghost fishing’. It is also a danger to boat propellers and affects the oceans’ ability to absorb carbon and mitigate climate change.
Untangling plastic fishing gear
To tackle the issue of unsustainable fishing, we’ve partnered with a European project called Innovative Fishing Gear for Oceans (INdIGO). The project aims to develop the first completely biodegradable fishing net with a controlled lifespan and define a strategy to improve the recycling of fishing gear as part of a circular economy.
The nets will biodegrade into natural materials within two years rather than breaking down into microplastics, which are estimated to persist in the marine environment for hundreds of years. Research has already shown that microplastics enter the human food chain when we eat fish.
By developing biodegradable fishing gear the project will help reduce the amount of plastic in the Channel area of the UK and France by 3% by 2030.
Supporting the circular economy
To ensure that expertise from across the sector is brought into the process, we’re working with fishermen and relevant authorities from the fishing industry, recycling organisations, beach cleaning groups, local authorities and policymakers. This will enable INdIGO to develop products that are suited to the needs of the market and competitive with current alternatives, while reducing their impact on the environment.
Professionals from the fishing and aquaculture sectors are closely involved in the project to ensure that the new products are fit for purpose. We’ve recently completed two surveys to gather their insights. The first was a technical survey to understand the extent of fishing gear use/loss, what happens to the equipment at the end of life and what recycling facilities are available. The second was a behavioural survey to gather their views of biodegradable fishing gear, whether they would like to use it and what they think about its role in sustainable fisheries.
The project considers all aspects of the production and life cycle for fishing gear, from assessing the filaments used to manufacture nets, through to testing the designs at sea to assess any pollution. The project has also developed a mobile phone app to locate fishing gear that has already been lost.
The future of sustainable fishing
Dr Ben Drakeford, Senior Lecturer in Economics and Finance at the University of Portsmouth leads the project. He’s conducting an economic analysis of the net prototypes produced by the project partners, looking at the medium to long-term cost of using these biodegradable nets compared to the current plastic ones.
Dr Drakeford said: “Abandoned, discarded or lost fishing gear is having a significant and growing impact on marine life. While the environmental implications of marine litter are well documented, the economic impacts are largely unknown, although estimated to be large. We will utilise economic and socioeconomic analysis to support the uptake of biodegradable nets that can make a significant contribution to tackling the world’s marine litter problem.”
The four-year project will finish in June 2023 when it is hoped a commercially viable product will be produced to help reduce plastic pollution generated by the fishing industry.
INdIGO is a 4.2m euro project from the European Union’s Interreg programme, funded by the European Regional Development Fund. It involves the University of Portsmouth and University of Plymouth in the UK and the University of Brittany in France, plus three research centres and five private organisations from the UK and France.