Recycling fishing gear is a net positive for startups and oceans

Shutterstock Simon Dannhauer

This article originally ran on Ensia.

In 2013, Joel Baziuk had a problem. He had too many fishing nets and no good way to get rid of them. But that was about to change.

As operations supervisor of Steveston Harbour Authority, or SHA, just south of Vancouver, British Columbia, Baziuk is responsible for Canada’s largest commercial fishing harbor. At any given time, more than 400 vessels call the harbor home. At sea, they land a plethora of fish and shellfish — from salmon to shrimp to sea urchins — that wind up on dinner plates. All that seafood is caught with nylon nets — seine nets and gillnets that can reach hundreds of feet in length. Many such nets slowly but surely were colonizing every spare inch of storage in Baziuk’s harbor because many have deteriorated to such an extent that they no longer can be used for commercial fishing.

"These nets have just been sitting around forever," said Baziuk. However, because traditional disposal options of burying or incinerating the nets are limited and costly, fishermen simply stored their nets instead.

As big as it is, clutter is just a small part of the fishing gear problem. In many fisheries around the world, lack of disposal options means old fishing gear finds its way back into the marine environment, where it haunts our oceans as "ghost gear" with devastating impacts. Some 705,000 tons of fishing gear are lost or discarded in the ocean every year, and each year this gear captures and kills, among other things, an estimated 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales. Because ghost gear accumulates around active fisheries, it also can pose an economic hardship to fishermen as it kills fish or other seafood they otherwise would harvest.

But start-up companies capable of collecting and recycling old gear and turning it into market-ready raw materials recently have emerged to help tackle the problem.

Out of the blue

Baziuk was determined to find a better disposal option for Steveston’s fishermen. Then, "out of the blue," a representative from a fishing gear recycling initiative contacted him. "They were looking to expand, they were looking for sources of fishing nets, they were looking for fishing harbors, and we’re the biggest one in Canada," he said. "I thought, 'OK, finally there’s maybe something we can do to help.'"

Since that initial phone call in 2013, Steveston Harbour has recycled over 40 tons of nylon fishing gear, with more on the way.

Fishing gear recycling is still in its infancy. Only two companies, Italian yarn producer Aquafil and Danish cleantech company Plastix, have the technology and resources to do it on a large scale. Both were created in response to the ghost gear problem, and both are expanding to serve harbors in Europe and around the world.

Steveston Harbour began sending its nylon nets to Aquafil’s recycling plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2014. Aquafil covers shipping costs and pays Steveston Harbour a small sum for the nets. Once in Slovenia, the nets are processed into yarn that can be made into products such as socks and carpet tiles.

Aquafil already has recycled hundreds of tons of fishing gear since it began in 2013. Most of this gear has come from the Healthy Seas initiative, a collaboration among Aquafil, carpet-maker Interface and other businesses and nonprofits. The initiative’s goals are, in the words of project coordinator Veronika Mikos, "cleaning up the marine environment" and "showing that in [a] circular economy, waste is a resource." While Healthy Seas primarily operates in Europe — in harbors on the North Sea, Adriatic and Mediterranean — Aquafil’s partnership with Steveston demonstrates that the company is eager to expand.

"The amount of nets collected year by year is growing exponentially," said Mikos. "Finding the right local partners is key for the success of every initiative and of course the availability of financial resources. If these criteria are met, we have a high potential to expand to other countries."

Recycling even more

How do thousands of pounds of commercial fishing nets get from Canada to Slovenia? First, fishermen hand over their gillnets and seines to SHA for free. Then, the non-recyclable components of seines and gillnets have to be stripped away to ready the nylon nets for shipping. This work is carried out by fishermen, paid for their work out of a lump sum Aquafil gives to SHA. The pure nylon nets are packed into bags, which will weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds when full. The bags are ready to ship when 40,000 pounds of nylon have been packed.

Unfortunately, as Aquafil only recycles the material nylon6, fishing gear such as trawl nets and crab pots cannot currently be recycled at Steveston. Baziuk said he’d like to recycle all of the harbor’s fishing gear, not just the nylon. Plastix could make this possible. Founded in 2012, Plastix can convert not only nylon6, but trawl nets and metal fishing gear components, into valuable raw materials. It is connecting with harbors around the world through the Global Ghost Gear Initiative, or GGGI.

"The ultimate goal is to stop the inflow of waste into the marine environment and find solutions to better deal with the waste challenge," said Plastix CEO Hans Axel Kristensen. In addition, he said, the company wants to encourage "a more green and circular economy in the marine industry."

GGGI has been helping harbors such as Steveston connect to new recycling options such as Plastix.

"Recycling fishing gear can significantly help to reduce the volume of ghost gear that enters our oceans," said Ingrid Giskes, head of World Animal Protection’s Sea Change campaign, which founded GGGI. Not only that, she said, but in cases where fishing gear already has been lost at sea, "clear methods and avenues for recycling gear incentivize fishers to recover fishing gear and bring it back to shore."

Where next?

Baziuk hopes to help expand recycling initiatives to more harbors in Canada in coming years. This will require him, GGGI and companies such as Aquafil and Plastix to overcome the two main barriers to fishing gear recycling: logistics and awareness.

"Transportation costs are a big problem," said Baziuk, because small harbors need to pay to move the nets to the larger ports from which recyclers are willing to pay shipping.

Giskes agreed. "[A] key component of a successful recycling project is wider availability and access for fishers to disposal and port reception facilities," she said.

Currently, Baziuk is working to enlist Prince Rupert, another harbor in British Columbia, as another hub for fishing gear recycling that can serve the smaller harbors in the region. But coordinating efforts has been slow. In the meantime, he said, "we’re trying to expand along the coast of [British Columbia] to show that an entire coast can be done, and once we do that we’ll step up from there."

Meanwhile, GGGI and other organizations, such as Circular Ocean, are spreading awareness of fishing gear recycling on an international level. Recycling initiatives also are being connected with ghost gear retrieval programs through initiatives such as Net-Works, and Plastix is incentivizing recycling through a new certification program.

Surprisingly, getting the word out locally can be more of a challenge. "Not a lot of fishers these days are connected [to the internet]," Baziuk explained. "Getting information out to people who aren’t necessarily connected is hard." He said that harbors such as Steveston must rely on certain fishermen to act as champions and let other fishermen know that they can recycle their old nets for free. The good news is that once fishermen are aware recycling is an option, they have been highly receptive.

If Baziuk and the recycling companies successfully can establish collection hubs throughout Canada, the country’s harbors will be recycling long after Steveston sends off its last old forgotten net. And, eventually, net recycling just might catch on around the world.

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