24 May 2018 Story Oceans & seas

Fishing for plastic from the sea


For the last 10 months, fishermen in Kerala, along India’s southern coast, have been engaged in a unique exercise. In addition to hauling in fish from their daily trips to sea, they are now also bringing back large quantities of plastic waste.

Kerala – famous for its pristine beaches, estuaries and wildlife – has a coastline that stretches nearly 600 kilometers. The region, which is one of India’s top producers of fish, is home to more than a million people who depend on fisheries for their livelihoods. But with the rising tide of marine pollution, especially plastic pollution, fish output has recently been declining.

Last year, Kerala’s fisheries minister, J. Mercykutty Amma, decided enough was enough. Under her direction, the state government launched a sanitation campaign titled Suchitwa Sagaram, or Clean Sea.

As fish trawlers lay their nets in the sea, they end up scooping out huge amounts of plastic that get entangled in the nets along with the fish. In the past, they would simply release the plastic junk back into the water, but now the fishermen – who have received training through the Suchitwa Sagaram initiative – are bringing that plastic back to shore.

Once brought from the sea, the plastic material is collected at the fishing harbour.  From there, the waste is fed into a plastic shredding machine, which turns it into material that is then used for road surfacing.

The initiative currently engages five trawlers and 28 people from the local fishing community – all but two of whom are women.

“So far, they have removed 10 tonnes of plastic bags and plastic bottles and 15 tonnes of discarded nets, plastic ropes and other plastic items from the sea,” says Johnson Premkumar, programme officer for training with the Suchitwa initiative. “Even though it is a small group of fishermen, they have freed the sea from 25 tonnes of plastic waste.”

Plastic bags, bottles and other disposables end up in water bodies and landfills after being discarded and from there they often reach the sea and pose a threat to the marine diversity.

Fish, and most marine organisms that take in water through their gills, are increasingly at risk of ingesting microscopic plastic debris. Through this initiative, the fishermen of Kerala are not just cleaning the sea but also safeguarding the ecosystem that sustains their livelihoods.

#BeatPlasticPollution is the theme of World Environment Day 2018.