Scientists warn that, unless we take action, by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the oceans.
But while retail giants Woolworths and Coles are banning plastic bags, and governments around the world are banning straws, coffee stirrers and other single-use plastic items, we need to remember that these items are just the tip of the plastic iceberg.
If we really want to stem the tide of plastic pollution that's choking our oceans and killing marine animals, we'd be better off banishing cod and tuna from our plates, and skipping trips to the local fishing hole.
Fishing – whether for food or for "fun" – and the rubbish that it generates inflict far more harm on wildlife than straws or plastic bags ever will.
It's easy to understand why plastic straws and bags are under fire, though. No one who has seen the video footage of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle's nostril or a dolphin tangled in a plastic bag will ever be able to forget it. But according to Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, even if every plastic straw littering coastlines around the world suddenly washed into the oceans, 'they'd account for about .03% of the eight million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year'. And despite an 80% drop in plastic-bag use, the overall sea litter from plastics has remained constant — primarily because of an increase in fishing debris.
Sea turtles and other animals are much more likely to be harmed by lost and discarded fishing gear. Scientists affiliated with The Ocean Cleanup, a group working to reduce plastic pollution, determined that, by weight, fishing nets make up at least 46% of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — a floating pile of rubbish that's three times the size of France. Eel traps, baskets, ropes and other abandoned fishing gear – also known as "ghost gear" – make up the majority of the rest.
Some 640,000 tons of ghost gear enter the world's oceans every year, and can mutilate and kill marine animals for many years afterwards.
It's a gruesome death. Whales who become entangled in heavy fishing gear can drown, die of exhaustion after weeks of struggling to free themselves, or slowly starve to death if the gear is lodged in their mouths and prevents them from feeding. Just recently, rescue crews in Canada freed an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear near Grand Manan Island.
In July, a humpback whale was rescued after dragging commercial fishing tackle from Northern Victoria all the way to the South East Queensland coast. While this animal was rescued, millions of sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, birds and other animals – maimed and killed by discarded fishing gear every year – aren't so fortunate.
Recreational anglers aren't off the hook, either. Wildlife rehabilitators have told PETA U.S. that discarded fishing line and other tackle is the greatest threat to aquatic animals today.
The Australian platypus may end up on the threatened species list, according to biologist Geoff Williams, a member of the Australian Platypus Conservancy. He says a huge number of platypuses are dying in agony after becoming entangled in discarded fishing line.
Baby birds can also be strangled if their parents unwittingly use bits of fishing line when weaving their nests. In its leaflet, 'Angler Alert: Fishing Line Can Kill!', the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service estimates that at least 5-10% of osprey nests in the Chesapeake Bay area contain fishing line.
Banning plastic bags and straws isn't nearly enough. People who care about animals and the oceans need to consider not just what they use to drink their beverages or carry their groceries in, but also what they eat and what they do for recreation. Less fishing means less deadly fishing gear — plain and simple.
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