Our plastic addiction threatens global fish stocks — Q&A with the International Oceans Institute

30 marzo 2017

How does our love for plastic jeopardize global fisheries? During the Oceans Forum held in Geneva on 21 and 22 March, we sat down with Awni Behnam, the honorary president of the International Ocean Institute, and Antonella Vassallo, its managing director, to find out.

Based in Malta, the International Ocean Institute is a non-governmental organization promoting ocean governance.

Q: How does plastic threaten global fisheries?

A: (Ms. Vassallo) We produce 300 million tons or so of plastic each year -- the United States alone consumes close to 400 billion plastic bags, sacks and wraps each year, according the US Environmental Protection Agency.

In the usual scenario of municipal waste collection, plastic ends up recycled or in landfills. But landfills are often exposed, allowing wind to carry plastic debris into the oceans. Rainwater also carries plastic into the rivers that feed our oceans and seas.

In the marine environment, plastic waste persists for decades, harming fish and their habitats.

We've all seen the images of plastic bottles and bags floating in the water, but it's what we don't see -- the microplastics and nanoplastics -- that is now causing major additional concerns.

Q: What are microplastics and nanoplastics? Why are they such cause for concern?

A: (Ms. Vassallo) As plastic degrades it becomes smaller and smaller. We tend to pat ourselves on the back when we buy and use biodegradable plastic. But in its cycle of biodegradation, plastic debris ends up becoming micro plastic particles easily consumed by fish.

Nanoplastics are extremely small plastic particles used in common pharmaceutical products and cosmetics such as toothpaste and some peeling or exfoliation creams. These get rinsed out through normal use and end up in our oceans, along with other plastic debris of various sizes, harming marine ecosystems and the large and small organisms that inhabit these environments.

When we harm fish species and other marine organisms during various stages of development, or harm their habitat, we threaten entire fish stocks and even our own health.

Q: How do these plastic particles affect our health?

A: (Ms. Vassallo) We know that these waste products physically harm the fish. They suffocate on plastic debris, for example. Their limbs and fins also get entangled and damaged. But when it comes to these very small particles that the fish ingest during their life cycles, we simply don't know if the chemicals are inert or if they can affect the nervous systems or cell tissues of the marine organisms. Nor do we know how our health could be affected by eating fish that have ingested plastic particles throughout their life cycle.

Q: Is pollution as threatening for fisheries as overfishing?

A: (Mr. Behnam) Making our fisheries more sustainable requires ending harmful fishing practices like illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing, and subsidies that lead to overfishing. But it also requires that we solve the issue of plastic pollution. If not, we may get global fish stocks to more sustainable levels, but the fish may end up being unhealthy and unfit for consumption.

A: (Ms. Vassallo) For too long we've seen the ocean as the carpet under which we could brush our dust. Though this dust was out of sight, it didn't go away. And since oceans have no boundaries, marine pollution is ultimately everyone's problem.

Q: What needs to be done to lessen the impact of plastics on fisheries?

A: (Ms. Vassallo) First and foremost, we need to consume less plastic, which includes avoiding products that contain nanoplastics. If you take a plastic bag at the supermarket or buy plastic-wrapped apples, you're contributing to the problem.

Unfortunately, recycling is not a complete solution because not all plastic can be recycled, and even recyclable plastic can only be recycled so many times.

Q: Could better regulation improve the situation?

A: (Mr. Behnam) Better regulation could help, but only if we have the political will to enforce the regulations.

We have regulations in place, such as the Global Partnership of Action for the protection of the marine environment from land-based activities. But we see how easily such regulation can be ignored. One of the reasons for the lack of political will is that most people are "ocean illiterate". They don't understand how the oceans work and what they do for us. Hence the importance of forums like this to help raise awareness of issues like plastic pollution.

We also need to abandon our sectorial approach to issues affecting trade and the environment. Organizations must look at the big picture of how trade and development go hand-in-hand with environmental protection. That's why it's encouraging to see UNCTAD looking not only at how trade affects biodiversity and the health of the oceans, but also at how biodiversity and the health of the oceans affect trade.