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Water Today Title October 30, 2020

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Update 2018/7/23


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by Michelle Moore

Last week at a meeting of fishery producers and researchers, a report released by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations called attention to the state of the world's oceans.

The 2018 edition of the State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture discussed among other things: the status of fishery resources, fishing fleets, biodiversity and emerging issues in the world of fishing and aquaculture.

It also highlighted the impacts of climate change and revealed two of the biggest challenges of ocean pollution from a fisheries and aquaculture perspective; plastics and abandoned fishing gear.

According to Environment Canada, it's estimated that less than 11% of plastics are recycled in Canada, at this rate, plastics could outweigh fish in the oceans by 2050.

The report discussed the two main kinds of plastics that end up in the ocean. The first are microplastics that are manufactured and sometimes found in bath and beauty products.

As of this year, Canada has banned microplastics, classifying them as a toxic substance under the Environmental Protection Act. The report said that microplastics attract living organisms like bacteria and fungi that attach themselves to it.

The second kind of microplastics result from the breakdown of larger items like straws, plastic utensils and plastic bags. However, FAO also includes abandoned or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) as a source.

Researchers are finding large quantities of ALDFG including buoys, boats, product packages and lures. Fish can sometimes confuse microplastics for small sized natural prey and ingest pieces.

Many countries have adopted regulations to reduce marine litter and in fact plastics were at the heart of discussions at this year's G7 meeting in La Malbaie, Quebec.

FAO has been partnered with UNEP, the Joint Group of Experts on the Scientific Aspects of Marine Environmental Protection (GESAMP) and academics to analyze the threat of plastics in fish for humans.

In addition, the report said "some near-bottom ALDFG can cause physical damage to the seabed and coral reefs. Surface ALDFG often presents a navigation and safety hazard for ocean users."

Dr. Rashid Sumaila is the Director of OceanCanada, a 6-year research initiative started in 2014 funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. He took a minute away from the International Institute for Fisheries Economics and Trade Conference in Seattle to speak with this reporter.

Dr. Sumaila said OceanCanada's reply to FAO's report is in the works; he said "we feel the report is a huge improvement from what they've been doing in the past years. They've done a lot of improvement in terms of talking about issues like small scale, abandoned gear issues."

Despite issues like climate change and plastic, when asked what the biggest threat to our oceans was, Dr. Sumaila said it was fishing. He said overfishing kills fish more directly than other factors though ocean acidification is something to look out for.

The report described the cause of ocean acidification as the increased uptake of carbon dioxide by oceans saying it is particularly harmful to calcifying organisms and the full range of consequences on the ecosystem are not yet known.

About climate change, Dr. Sumaila said "as the ocean is warming, every living thing has a range of temperatures that we are comfortable in, including humans ... the only mechanism [fish] have is to follow temperature."

He explained that fish tend to move away from areas when water gets too hot and so they are mainly seeing a move from the equator towards the coast which is negatively affecting food security in the tropics where many rely on fishing.

He pointed out that many fish go north to colder temperatures and find areas that are going through acidification. He added that there are also ethical issues involved because the areas that do not contribute as much to climate change are experiencing some of the worst consequences.

The report recommended three areas to be improved saying countries have "limited empirical understanding of the impacts of climate change at spatial and temporal scales relevant for decision-making; insufficient guidance on the potential adaptation tools available to the sector; and insufficient technical capacity to make the case for including fisheries and aquaculture in the development of nationally determined contributions."

Concerning abandoned fishing gear, Dr. Sumaila mentioned a phenomenon called ghost fishing, he said “when you have abandoned gear and they are floating and they kill fish without knowing it ... again the FAO has written quite a bit on that and ideas on how to stop it."

Indeed, FAO's report includes several recommendations that could lead to a decrease in the presence of ALDFG and therefore ghost fishing. For instance, the Global Ghost Gear Initiative is a group that actively works to eradicate existing ALDFG and prevent it in the future.

Concerning prevention, the report highlighted the fact that under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL), ports should be providing reception facilities for fishing gear disposal which many do not.

They also encourage tracking fishing gear by properly marking it, that way people would be less likely to leave behind gear if doing so could land them with a fine. Finally, recycling or repurposing old fishing gear could be another way to cut down and give fishermen an incentive to do so.

Dr. Sumaila had a rather ingenious idea as well. He said "instead of giving people public money to go overfish, how about you use it to go clean up the ocean? That way you have a win, win, win. You allow the fish to grow ... you clean the ocean and the people are employed."

He said the European Union has been working on a similar idea. Inspired from that and hoping to raise awareness, a new tour company started this year called Plastic Whale invites tourists in Amsterdam to help clean the canals in a boat made of recycled materials.


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