In the fishing industry, gear recycling is finally catching on


Courtesy of Ensia

In 2013, Joel Baziuk had a problem. He had too many fishing nets, and no good way to get rid of them. But that was about to change.

As operations supervisor of Steveston Harbour Authority, or SHA, just south of Vancouver, British Columbia, Baziuk is responsible for Canada’s largest commercial fishing harbor. At any given time, more than 400 vessels call the harbor home. At sea, they land a plethora of fish and shellfish — from salmon to shrimp to sea urchins — that wind up on dinner plates. All that seafood is caught with nylon nets — seine nets and gillnets that can reach hundreds of feet in length. Many such nets were slowly but surely colonizing every spare inch of storage in Baziuk’s harbor because many have deteriorated to such an extent that they can no longer be used for commercial fishing.

“These nets have just been sitting around forever,” says Baziuk. They had deteriorated to such an extent that they could no longer be used for commercial fishing. However, because the traditional disposal options of burying or incinerating the nets are limited and costly, fishermen simply stored their nets instead.

As big as it is, clutter is just a small part of the fishing gear problem. In many fisheries around the world, lack of disposal options means old fishing gear finds its way back into the marine environment, where it haunts our oceans as “ghost gear” with devastating impacts. Some 640,000 metric tons (705,000 tons) of fishing gear are lost or discarded in the ocean every year, and each year this gear captures and kills, among other things, an estimated 136,000 seals, sea lions and whales. Since ghost gear accumulates around active fisheries, it can also pose an economic hardship to fishermen as it kills fish or other seafood they would otherwise harvest.

But start-up companies capable of collecting and recycling old gear and turning it into market-ready raw materials have recently emerged to help tackle the problem.

Out of the Blue

Baziuk was determined to find a better disposal option for Steveston’s fishermen. Then, “out of the blue,” a representative from a fishing gear recycling initiative contacted him. “They were looking to expand, they were looking for sources of fishing nets, they were looking for fishing harbors, and we’re the biggest one in Canada,” he says. “I thought, ‘Okay, finally there’s maybe something we can do to help.’”

Since that initial phone call in 2013, Steveston Harbour has recycled over 40 tons (36 metric tons) of nylon fishing gear, with more on the way.

Fishing gear recycling is still in its infancy. Only two companies, Italian yarn producer Aquafil and Danish cleantech company Plastix, have the technology and resources to do it on a large scale. Both were created in response to the ghost gear problem, and both are now expanding to serve harbors in Europe and around the world.

Steveston Harbour began sending its nylon nets to Aquafil’s recycling plant in Ljubljana, Slovenia, in 2014. Aquafil covers shipping costs and pays Steveston Harbour a small sum for the nets. Once in Slovenia, the nets are processed into yarn that can then be made into products like socks and carpet tiles.

Aquafil has already recycled hundreds of tons of fishing gear since it began in 2013. Most of this gear has come from the Healthy Seas initiative, a collaboration among Aquafil, carpet-maker Interface, and other businesses and nonprofits. The initiative’s goals are, in the words of project coordinator Veronika Mikos, “cleaning up the marine environment” and “showing that in [a] circular economy, waste is a resource.” While Healthy Seas primarily operates in Europe — in harbors on the North Sea, Adriatic and Mediterranean — Aquafil’s partnership with Steveston demonstrates that the company is eager to expand.

“The amount of nets collected year by year is growing exponentially,” says Mikos. “Finding the right local partners is key for the success of every initiative and of course the availability of financial resources. If these criteria are met, we have a high potential to expand to other countries.”

Recycling Even More

How do thousands of pounds of commercial fishing nets get from Canada to Slovenia? First, fishermen hand over their gillnets and seines to SHA, free of charge. Then, the non-recyclable components of seines and gillnets have to be stripped away to ready the nylon nets for shipping. This work is carried out by fishermen, who are paid for their work out of a lump sum Aquafil gives to SHA. The pure nylon nets are then packed into bags, which will weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds (400 to 500 kilograms) when full. The bags are ready to ship when 40,000 pounds (20,000 kilograms) of nylon have been packed.

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