Reports of EU plans to pay fishers to catch plastic, rather than fish, is a double edged sword: cleaning up marine litter is desperately needed but paying fishers to collect plastic in a manner that keeps afloat a largely unsustainable industry is tantamount to an environmentally damaging subsidy.

Reports of EU plans to pay fishers to catch plastic, rather than fish, is a double edged sword: cleaning up marine litter is desperately needed but paying fishers to collect plastic in a manner that keeps afloat a largely unsustainable industry is tantamount to an environmentally damaging subsidy.

Commissioner Damanaki’s recent suggestion to pay fishermen to collect marine litter, providing them with an additional source of income to compensate them for low profits in the fishing sector, has sent alarm bells ringing in the environmental community. Poor profitability in fisheries is a tell-tale sign of overcapacity in the fleet, and providing a subsidy contributing to maintaining such overcapacity spells disaster for fish stocks – and for the fishing industry.

While marine litter is an enormous and increasing problem, the EU must ensure that spending taxpayers’ money on one initiative that might help solve this environmental problem does not come at the expense of fish stocks.

The EU would do better to finance a dedicated sector to cleaning up the seas, where existing fishermen and fishing fleets are not involved, and where environmentally friendly gear is utilized for the recovery of all marine litter, especially plastic items and ghost fishing gear.

The ‘Fishing for Litter’ scheme, that has already been rolled out in several EU countries has been seen as a largely positive step in order to remove the huge amounts of plastic in European waters. The scheme essentially entails fishermen retrieving the litter that comes up in their nets during their normal fishing operations, on a voluntary basis, and has therefore no impact on fishing capacity.

However, the practice largely relies on vessels that use bottom trawling gear, which can have devastating effects on the sea floor.

Encouraging and extending such an approach outside of the fishing season would firstly increase the environmental damage on the sea floor but also keep afloat companies that otherwise could not be economically sustainable throughout the year.

The majority of EU fish stocks are in a perilous condition and over 72% are currently overfished.

Commissioner Damanaki must acknowledge that any subsidy, however good the intentions, must not directly encourage a further loss to endangered European fish stocks.

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