Globally, derelict fishing gear makes up one tenth of all marine litter, equivalent to 640,000 tonnes a year. Derelict fishing gear has large-scale impacts on marine biodiversity through habitat disturbance and the effects of ghost fishing. It causes direct harm to the welfare and conservation of marine animals via entanglement and/or ingestion. It acts as a source of, and vehicle for, persistent toxic chemical pollution in the ocean and represents a threat to human health, for example, to scuba divers and to maritime traffic through propeller entanglement. There are also significant economic costs associated with derelict fishing gear. The adverse impacts of derelict fishing gear have been exacerbated by the introduction of non-biodegradable fishing gear, with many of the plastics used predicted to persist in the marine environment for up to 600 years. The cumulative long term effects are likely to be extremely damaging to marine flora and fauna, as well as to the people and industries who depend on healthy seas.
The Healthy Seas initiative applies a two-way approach to achieve its mission. Namely, recovering ghost fishing nets from our seas (with the help of divers and salvage companies) and preventing waste nets from ending up in marine ecosystems in the first place (with the help of fishermen and fish farms).
The Healthy Seas initiative ‘a journey from waste to wear’ started in 2013 as a unique collaboration between the ECNC Group, Aquafil Group and Star Sock to remove waste, in particular fishing nets, from the ocean for regeneration into new sustainable textiles.
ECNC Group coordinates volunteer divers to recover ghost nets (mainly from shipwrecks) across three pilot regions - the North Sea, the Adriatic Sea and the Mediterranean Sea (first phase). The nets are cleaned and the polymer material extracted and transformed by Aquafil into regenerated ECONYL® nylon yarn. ECONYL® yarn can be used for a wide range of products and can be recycled endlessly without any loss of material quality. A wide range of textile products can be made with ECONYL® yarn including sportswear, swimwear, underwear and carpets. Star Sock was the first company to use ECONYL® regenerated yarn for their socks.
ECONYL® yarn can be used for a wide range of products and can be recycled endlessly without any loss of material quality.
The second phase of the initiative is seeking to identify methods to improve net handling at end-of-life and the third phase focused on leveraging the outcomes and scaling up the initiative.
Since 2013 more than 51 tonnes of lost and abandoned nets have been recovered. Fishing nets now make up around 25% of the total recycling carried out by Aquafil. The potential supply of material from the fishing industry is certainly large beyond ghost nets. Aquafil is already working on ways to utilise this raw material further. They are collaborating with harbour masters (see Steveston Harbour case study) and fish farmers directly to source nets. The operation is now working at a significant scale with Aquafil collecting 400-500 tonnes of net per month from the fishing and aquaculture industries, and from ocean clean ups.
The initiative has been 100% funded by its member organisations and there is a strong belief that the project can be self-financing in the long-term.
The initiative represents regeneration on a product level as opposed to the more prevalent packaging level. It looks beyond cleaning up and recycling and moves towards a closed loop model and more sustainable systems.
Most fishing nets are made from nylon, a valuable engineering-grade plastic which can be regenerated and used in textile products. The strength of Healthy Seas lies in its partnership of NGOs and businesses working towards the same goal: a better planet and healthier seas, while learning-by-doing and being open to new partners and creative ideas. Sustainability is the focus from both an environmental and economic point of view.
Effectively tackling the problem of derelict fishing gear and marine litter more generally will clearly require long term, coordinated action at the local, regional and global level. Healthy Seas is a successful industry-NGO collaboration project representing a sustainable and self-financing solution, which has the potential to be expanded and replicated more widely.