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Marine plastic debris has emerged as a problem in the coastal areas of Kerala, endangering fishes, birds and ecosystems, and threatening the livelihood of fishers

A diver looking for marine debris off the coast of Thiruvananthapuram (Photo by Friends of Marine Life)

On a thin strip of land between the Arabian Sea and a lagoon 30 km north of Thiruvananthapuram, capital of the southern state of Kerala, artisanal fishers are finding a menace — plastic debris from the ocean. “The other day, some colleagues caught two sacksful in their net, and we had to bury it in our sandy seashore,” said Soosa Melkias, a fisherman of Anchuthengu, a coastal village near the state capital.

In this crowded village struggling with its own solid waste, the quick solution that the fishers found was to bury the debris for now, till the shore gets inundated in a high tide next time. “We sometimes find debris in the sea and on our reefs and it affects fish growth and fishing,” Melkias told Reefs are ridges made of rock, corals or sand just above or below the waterline making up rich fishing grounds.

Closer to the city centre in the capital, while diving in the coastal waters, citizen scientist Robert Panipilla and his colleague Aneesha Ani Benedict, a marine biologist, found a virtual underwater dump yard. Later, with six scuba divers working in three teams off the shore of the tourist village Kovalam, they scooped up 71 kg of debris comprising bottles, caps, food packaging, sanitary products and other discarded items. “The labels suggested they came from nearby places,” said Panipilla, who heads and NGO called the Friends of Marine Life (FML).

FML prepared a set of photographs and a presentation for the Conference on Marine Debris (COMAD 2018) held at Kochi on April 11-12. “We thought we need to share our findings with the larger scientific community,” Panipilla told COMAD provided a forum to share such local experiences and innovations along with scientific findings, said V. Kripa, principal scientist of the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI), Kochi.

Scientists of the Marine Biological Association of India that hosted COMAD is finding marine debris as an emerging issue of the 21st century, “worse than any other problem faced by aquatic ecosystems”, a concern shared worldwide. Marine debris is anything that is dumped on the shore or the sea and persists. It can be plastic, glass, metal, or paper, though plastic is the most abundant and widely reported debris.

Plastics explosion

Plastics explosion since the 1950s saw production increasing from about two million tonnes to 380 million tonnes a year by 2015, according to a 2017 analysis in Science Advances. We produce more plastics than any other human-made material, except cement and steel. The numbers are nightmarish. So far, 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic has been produced, half of it in the past 13 years. Only 9% of it has been recycled, 12% incinerated, and the remaining 79% was discarded in landfills or the natural environment.

What happens to the plastic discarded in the environment? As a UN Environment Programme study says, while the global production of plastics stood at 311 million tonnes in 2014, an estimated 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of plastics found their way into our oceans.

Plastic debris persists and travels great distances. Like ghosts in a storybook, they float around or lay buried beneath the surface with uncertain but bad impacts, largely unseen till they make occasional appearances of high drama. A classic case is that of an albatross that was found in 2006 with plastic from an aircraft shot down in 1944. Plastic cargo lost from ships has been found 4,000 km away.

An albatross chick with plastic debris in its stomach (Photo by Claire Fackler)

A large share of plastic debris comes from ships and fishing vessels. They include lost cargo, dumped waste and discarded fishing gear that become ghost nets, trapping and killing fish underwater. FML has recently recovered 400 kg of discarded nets from Vizhinjam, a fishing village south of Thiruvananthapuram. Panipilla believe boats that escaped Cyclone Ockhi, which hit the Kerala coast in December last year, would have abandoned their nets and there could be more from sunken boats and earlier incidents — miles and miles of ghost nets.

Another part of the waste comprises sand-like microplastics less than 5 mm in diameter, such as the microbeads in face wash and detergents, as well as fragments from weathering and decomposing plastic goods

Marine organisms can be affected by plastic debris in many ways — by eating, getting entangled, rafting to new places or finding new habitat in the debris itself. A study published by the Convention of Biological Diversity (CBD) reports impacts of marine debris in 663 species. Over half of these cases involved eating or getting entangled in debris, which shows a 40% increase since 1997, when 247 species were affected.

All known species of sea turtles, half of all species of marine mammals, and a tenth of sea bird species were affected by entanglement or ingestion of marine debris, about 15% of all the species affected being on the IUCN Red List denoting threatened species. Over 80% of the impacts were associated with plastic debris while paper, glass and metal accounted for less than 2%.

“Of particular concern are the critically endangered Hawaiian monk seal Monachus schauinslandi, endangered loggerhead turtle Caretta caretta, and vulnerable northern fur seal Callorhinus ursinus and white chinned petrel Procellaria aequinoctialis,” the CBD report noted.

Closer to home, a study in Mangalore has found nylon and plastic rope debris on the beaches, and in the guts of oil sardines and mackerel. Elsewhere seabirds, tuna and dolphins were found with plastics — including bottle caps and bags — in their belly. Kripa says plastics enter the food chain easily. Scientists are concerned that toxic persistent organic pollutants can piggyback on microplastics to enter the food chain, though its impact is still debated.

Tackling marine plastic pollution

As plastic production, use and waste mount, UN agencies are looking at ways control marine plastic pollution. CBD recommends a set of reuse and reduce strategies. The strategies suggested include packaging and plastics reduction, eco-labels to mark the environmental performance of different production, procurement of environment-friendly products, and a preference towards biodegradable products.

Kerala government has banned plastic bags and bottles below the thickness of 50 microns (millionth of a metre). However, a complete ban on plastic carry bags cannot be imposed in the state, as the government recently argued in the state high court as making available biodegradable alternatives to plastic needed time. In villages such as Anchuthengu and elsewhere, thin plastic bags are still the norm in shops and takeaway restaurants.

Plastic waste from the city makes coastal waters of Thiruvananthapuram into a dump yard (Photo by Friends of Marine Life)

Locally, fishers of Thiruvananthapuram are looking at their own local solutions. FML advocates better awareness of the marine debris problem. Divers associated with the group regularly scan the seabed for changes and promote a campaign for clean coasts.

In Kollam district north of Thiruvananthapuram, two major fishing harbours at the neighbouring Neendakara and Shanktikulangara villages are showing a way forward for big fishing vessels. The fishers here have started collecting all the plastic that they trawl from the sea bottom and handing them over to a point for safe disposal or recycling.

In Anchuthengu, a former British colonial post with a fort that dates back to 1695, Melkias and his small boat colleagues are pushing for more responsible fishing especially around reefs. One of the local reefs comprises the wreck of a Dutch ship that sank in 1754. Traditionally fishers are not supposed to engage in intense fishing using nets around reefs, respecting the rights of hook and line fishers who find abundant fish here. “Still fishers use the wrong kind of nets in such places, even with lights to attract more fish,” Melkias told “Their nets get entangled in the reef and they become a menace, killing fish and blocking future fishing.”

Threatening livelihoods

Scientists are calling for better assessment and appreciation of the problem of marine debris, especially in the coastal waters. A. Biju Kumar,  professor at the Aquatic Biology and Fisheries department of Kerala University, noted that huge quantities of plastic waste reach the sea from storm drains, canals and sewage. “It may be not float, and remain invisible escaping people’s attention,” he told “So it is not readily identified as a problem, whereas it can threaten fishing livelihoods, especially in inshore waters.”

Marine debris has not affected the aesthetics of Kerala’s pristine coasts yet, thought it might wash up one day — as it did in Bali last Christmas — and spoil state’s reputation as God’s Own Country, as the state Tourism Department calls it. Scientists have called for a scientific assessment of the extent of marine debris before the ghosts of plastics makes more scary appearances.


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