This article first appeared on February 5, 2017 in the Sunday Post
By Nick Drainey
It’s a load of rubbish but for the fishing industry and consumers the discarded waste being piled up at harbours across Scotland is good news.
Fishing boats once dumped the junk they hauled up in their nets back overboard, including waterproof clothes, oil drums, machinery and even sleeping bags. But now they bag the refuse and take it back to port to be disposed of.
And the “Fishing For Litter” scheme has just reached the milestone of pulling 1,000 tonnes of potentially dangerous refuse from the seabed.
Jimmy Buchan, who starred in the BBC TV series Trawlermen, documenting the perilous work of fishermen, said: “When we first started it, we would maybe lift a tonne of rubbish in a trip but I know it is working because now we hardly fill the bottom of a bag. The good we have done means that we are having an environmentally positive effect – we are doing a great service to the marine environment.”
It has been estimated that marine litter costs the Scottish ﬁshing industry around £10 million a year, the equivalent of five per cent of the total revenue of the aﬀected boats, which can suffer damaged nets or propellers snagged with rubbish.
Mr Buchan, who trawls from Peterhead, said: “When you go fishing anything that gets into the net – a dumped sleeping bag is a classic – immediately closes up the meshes. When you are trawling the net is skipping along the sandy seabed and the silt goes through the net but because of this blockage it starts to build up rapidly and that changes the geometry of the net. A few buckets of sand is an extremely heavy weight tugging on the net and it stops you fishing.”
The Fishing For Litter project was introduced to Scottish waters by KIMO UK, an Aberdeenshire-based organisation linking local authorities around the coast of the North Sea, in 2005.
Special bags are given to skippers to store the rubbish before returning it to port. Despite the 1,000 tonne landmark being reached by more than 200 Scottish boats, the plan is going to continue to make the seas healthier fish stocks.
The situation Scotland’s fishing fleet found itself in dates back decades, according to Mr Buchan, 57. He said: “When I was a boy in Peterhead the town’s rubbish was dumped at sea. There was any area at the back the port where all the council carts tipped the rubbish over a wall and into the sea and the tide washed it away. So as a boy my perception was that the sea was a dumping ground.”
Mr Buchan said the coming of plastics changed things as previously the bulk of what had been dumped, such as paper and cardboard, broke down in the sea, unlike more modern materials. He added: “That practice was phased out but if you grow up thinking if you want to dump something you dump it over the side, when you go to sea that is the practice. If you multiply that by a thousand boats all of sudden you have turned your fishing ground into a dumping ground.
“It was becoming a problem so when this scheme opened I immediately thought it was fantastic. I wasn’t looking at becoming an environmentalist or a green person, I could see commercial viability if it started to get rubbish out of the sea. It is going to affect my fishing opportunities and therefore make me better.”
Mr Buchan says the fish which now come out of the sea are healthier as well because they are not swimming in as much plastic and other pollutants. He said: “Chefs who I supply are over the moon because they see that they are always getting quality fish. If we have a disturbed haul, with silt and mud, the quality of the fish we do catch is affected as well.”
The scheme has funding until 2020, which Mr Buchan said was “great”. “We don’t get paid for it, it is purely for the love of the job and the commercial benefit.”
KIMO Chair Cllr Raymond Christie said the scheme was working well and reaching the milestone of 1,000 tonnes was a “great achievement”. He said: “I would like to thank all of the crews and harbour staff who took part for their fantastic efforts to help protect our precious marine environment and shoreline.”
Cabinet Secretary for Environment, Climate Change and Land Reform, Roseanna Cunningham, said the scheme supported the Scottish Government’s Marine Litter Strategy. She said: “Marine litter is a very serious issue both for Scottish seas and across the global oceans. It is shown to harm wildlife and the natural environment whilst impacting on our marine industries through damage to subsea and coastal infrastructure, vessels and fishing gear.
“I would like to congratulate KIMO on their success in reaching this milestone. I would also like to take the opportunity to commend those fishermen who are participating and making a real difference in cleaning up Scotland’s seas.”
Stewart Stevenson, MSP for Banffshire and Buchan Coast, added: “Our north-east coastline provides a livelihood for thousands of people, as well as providing a habitat for countless species of marine lifestyle. Therefore, it’s our duty to protect it and I applaud our local fishermen for going above and beyond to remove as much litter from our waters.”