Hooked on Solutions: How Canada’s Fisheries Can Reel in Plastic Pollution

Published: March 14, 2023

by Maïa Dakessian, Science & Policy Exchange (SPE)

Every 60 seconds, the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the ocean.
Every month, two Empire State Buildings full of plastic go into the ocean.
Every year, it adds up to the equivalent of one billion elephants worth of plastic.

It is estimated that every year, eight million metric tons of plastic end up in the world’s oceans. Plastic is a major contributor to ocean pollution. Marine plastic pollution and abandoned debris from fishing activities (‘ghost gear’) harm marine life, pollute our beaches, and ultimately threaten our health. Plastic pollution is especially problematic for marine ecosystems, as it takes hundreds of years to break down into smaller microplastics, which can be harmful when ingested by fish and marine mammals. While the problem may seem overwhelming, there are steps that we can take to address this issue and protect our oceans for future generations.

The objective of this blog post is to further the discussion on plastic waste and discuss the link between fisheries in Canada and microplastics in our ocean, as well as the innovative strategies that this industry is implementing to reduce its impact on the environment.

You may have heard of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which is twice the size of Texas, or about policies to reduce single-use plastic (straws, bags, etc.), but what really lies at the bottom of the sea?

Sources of single-use plastic and microplastics

Currently, the management of plastic waste in Canadian marine environments focuses mostly on regulating land-based sources of microplastics, such as plastic packaging, construction materials and household goods. Thus, Canadian policies mostly revolve around improving disposal of single-use plastic. For example, the federal government recently committed to divert at least 75% of plastic waste from federal operations, eliminate the unnecessary use of single-use plastics, and ban microbeads in toiletries, among others, by 2030.

However, another source of microplastics in the ocean come from water-based sources, such as fishing activities. For example, fishing gear, ropes and nets are large plastic objects that can break down into smaller parts (secondary microplastics) in the marine environment. In fact, it is estimated that, by weight, lost or discarded fishing gear (‘ghost gear’) accounts for 70% of microplastics in the ocean.

There are many sources of plastic waste and pollution, and it is a global problem. As such, systemic change is needed rather than individual actions like beach clean-ups or adopting a zero-waste lifestyle. For example, since plastic waste pollution is a worldwide problem, the Government of Canada has been interested in international partnerships, such as the Global Ghost Gear Initiative (GGGI), to develop better practices to reduce the accumulation of ghost gear.

Management of plastic waste

How can governments help prevent plastic waste from ending up in our oceans? In 2018, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom, and the European Union adopted the Ocean Plastics Charter to develop sustainable policies to manage plastic waste in oceans around the world. Through this, the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment adopted the Canada-wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste. This strategic plan is two-fold: 1) improve the circularity of plastic in the economy and 2) reduce plastic pollution.

Other key recommendations concerning the plastic waste management in Canada were discussed in an SPE Public Forum back in 2019 in collaboration with Climatable, a Montreal based non-profit organization focused on climate actions in Canada. One key recommendation was to develop measures to encourage collaboration and conversation between scientists, individuals, companies and government entities. The goal of this event was to discuss the magnitude of the plastic waste pollution problem in Québec and the rest of Canada. You can read more about the event Waste Streams: Can we stem the plastic tide? here!

Sustainable fishing gear

In 2019, the Government of Canada created the Sustainable Fisheries Solutions & Retrieval Support Contribution Program (SFSRSCP) to support coastal communities in ghost gear retrieval. Between 2019 and 2021, 739 tonnes of lost fishing gear was retrieved from Canada’s Atlantic and Pacific coasts (by weight, this is equivalent to 231 zambonis!). In 2021, Canada also launched a Fishing Gear Reporting System in hopes of keeping Canadian waters clean. Since this initiative, 224 tonnes of ghost gear have been removed from waters (by weight this is equivalent to 36 elephants). Fisheries and Oceans Canada is currently working on identifying solutions to prevent future gear loss.

However, ghost gear retrieval is expensive and fuel intensive. So what can be done in parallel? Some businesses are working towards making the fishing gear itself more sustainable. The Government of Canada also plans to invest in different innovations that can help make fisheries more sustainable: in 2019, they provided Plantee Bioplastics Inc with a $138K grant to develop biodegradable fishing gear.

Do you wish to voice your opinion concerning a more environmentally friendly fishing sector in Canada? The federal government is seeking feedback by March 17th by email (BlueEconomy-EconomieBleue@dfo-mpo.gc.ca). For more information, check out the Let’s Talk Federal Regulations platform.