The perils of plastic at sea

The recent reports of a young whale found dead on the southern Spanish coast as a result of the ingestion of 64 pounds of discarded nets, ropes and other plastic waste illustrates the growing seriousness of sea pollution. Verisona Law’s marine specialist, Tim Reynolds, examines the issue through his personal experience.

Though there have long been international conventions requiring commercial fishing nets and gear to be marked, and the losses of material overboard to be reported, a walk along the high tide line of any exposed coast will reveal the loss or discarding of nets and other plastic material from vessels at sea. What is becoming a rapidly escalating crisis worldwide poses a threat to both the wide variety of marine lifeforms that exist under the water and the crews of other smaller vessels operating on its surface.

On Friday 6th April, I was called to assist the Swedish Catamaran “Dragoon”, which, whilst on passage from Portugal to Stockholm, had picked up an obstruction on the portside saildrive and rudder. On closer inspection, the source of the problem was a discarded section of heavy polypropylene fishing net. Rapid action with a sharp knife enabled much of the netting to be cut free, but with night falling and a torn mainsail, the prudent decision was made to pull into Brighton Marina to check before continuing the passage.

As one of the crew was a family member, once I received the call for assistance, I promptly attended with the necessary commercial grade diving gear which enabled the crew to dive and cut free the remaining parts of the net. Thereafter, “Dragoon” continued on her way to the Kiel Canal, but after only 36 hours, picked up a further section of discarded fine net around the starboard outdrive off Ostend.

Without the necessary gear, water temperatures prevented the sustained diving necessary to attend to the outdrive, firmly seized up by a ball of tightly wound netting, and free the disabled vessel. Fortunately the calm conditions enabled Dragoon to seek assistance and make it safely into a Dutch port, where she is now awaiting an expensive lift out and inspection.

Until recently it was considered that the prospects of one such incident occurring on this kind of passage would have been minimal, so to encounter two discarded nets over such a short period would have been exceptional. Dragoon was fitted with sharp rope-cutters, but they were overwhelmed. Little wonder therefore that even leviathans in the depths have no natural protection against this plastic menace.

The question that must be asked is to why this is occurring, and what can be done to prevent matters getting worse?

Restricting the sale or use of plastics, and educating those concerned as to the need to prevent their loss may be a start, and the development of new products constructed of naturally deteriorating materials such as wood, cork or cotton may in time offer cost effective options. Since recent studies suggesting the journey of much of the material now appearing on our shores involves many months and thousands of miles, there have to be internationally co-ordinated measures we are to really deal with this growing problem.

With serious concerns being raised as to the global extent of the problem of plastic pollution, including the long term consequences of the presence of micro plastic particles, the inevitably expensive process of effectively removal this material from the water to prevent proliferation must commence, and it needs to go hand in hand with the introduction of internationally enforced measures to better identify those responsible for the problem, and hold them to account financially for the costs and the consequences of their actions.

Tim Reynolds is Head of Marine Law at Verisona Law, he can be contacted on 023 9231 2052 or by email to tim.reynolds@verisonalaw.com.


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