Scientists warn that unless we take action, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the oceans than fish. But while retailers and governments around the world are banning straws, coffee stirrers, and other single-use plastic items, we need to remember that straws are just the tip of the plastic iceberg. If we really want to stem the tide of plastic pollution that's choking our oceans and killing marine animals, we'd be better off banishing cod and tuna from our plates and skipping trips to the local fishing hole.
Fishing — whether for food or for "fun" — and the garbage that it generates inflict far more harm on wildlife than straws ever will.
It's easy to understand why plastic straws are under fire, though. No one who has seen the video footage of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtle's nostril will ever be able to forget it. But according to Adam Minter, author of Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade, even if every plastic straw littering coastlines around the world suddenly washed into the oceans, "they'd account for about .03 percent of the 8 million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year."
Sea turtles and other animals are much more likely to be harmed by lost and discarded fishing gear. Scientists affiliated with The Ocean Cleanup, a group working to reduce plastic pollution, determined that, by weight, fishing nets make up at least 46 percent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of rubbish that's three times the size of France. Eel traps, baskets, ropes, and other abandoned fishing gear, also known as "ghost gear," make up the majority of the rest.
Some 640,000 tons of ghost gear enter the world's oceans every year — and can mutilate and kill marine animals for many years afterward.
It's a gruesome death. Whales who become entangled in heavy fishing gear can drown, die of exhaustion after weeks of struggling to free themselves or slowly starve to death if the gear is lodged in their mouths and prevents them from feeding. As I write this, rescue crews in Canada have just freed an endangered North Atlantic right whale entangled in fishing gear near Grand Manan Island.
In July, three young girls who were playing on Chic's Beach in Virginia found a commercial fishing net with 10 live seahorses trapped inside. Those animals were "lucky" — they were rescued by the quick-thinking girls. But millions of sea turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, birds, and other animals who are maimed and killed by discarded fishing gear every year aren't so fortunate.
Recreational anglers aren't off the hook, either. Wildlife rehabilitators have told PETA that discarded fishing line and other tackle is the greatest threat to aquatic animals today.
A reporter in Pennsylvania recently wrote about finding a juvenile bald eagle who had died from swallowing a fish hook in his neighborhood. Eight inches of fishing line, topped by a sinker, trailed from the eaglet's mouth. And in a little over two weeks, a wildlife center in Virginia had to euthanize both a bald eagle and an osprey after they had become entangled in fishing line. The more animals trapped in monofilament line struggle, the tighter it becomes, and those who don't die can sustain severed wings or feet.
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Baby birds can also be strangled if their parents unwittingly use bits of fishing line when weaving their nests. In its leaflet Angler Alert: Fishing Line Can Kill! the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service estimates that at least 5 to 10 percent of osprey nests in the Chesapeake Bay area contain fishing line.
Banning plastic straws isn't nearly enough. People who care about animals and the oceans need to consider not just what they use to drink their beverages but also what they eat and what they do for recreation. Less fishing means less deadly fishing gear, plain and simple.