LONDON/BARCELONA - A group of Spanish fishermen will receive financial support to catch plastic as well as fish, in an innovative new project aimed at tackling the huge amount of garbage dumped in the world’s oceans.

Around 12 million tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans every year, polluting the water, killing wildlife, and creating microplastics that enter the food chain.

Among those taking part in the scheme is Carlos Martin, who skippers the ‘Bonamar 2’ from its home port in Barcelona. VOA joined Martin and his crew at five o’clock on a cold February morning on the dockside, as they began the first task of the day: removing countless strands of cellulose-type plastic from the nets.

Some 800 shopping bags made of plastic sewed together in the shape of a fish are laid out by environmental activist group Greenpeace, in a protest against the pollution of oceans by plastic, in a street in Vienna.

As he steered the trawler into the dark waters of the Mediterranean, Martin described how the problem has got worse in the last three years. 

“I put it down to the rivers that carry a lot of garbage,” he says. “More plastic accumulates near the mouths of the rivers.”

Martin sails further from the shore to avoid the waste – further adding to his costs. 

“We separate the solid plastic and we bring it back to land, but the cellulose plastic gets hooked onto the knots of the nets,” he explains. “So, when it’s wet and caked with mud, this adds an extra weight to the fishing nets. The net does not function properly in relation to its height in the water, and it takes on mud, causing the net to break because it weighs so much.”

The local government has come up with a novel solution: the fishermen will become the frontline in the battle against ocean plastics.

Initially, 1 million euros of taxpayers’ money from the European Union and the Catalan government will support dozens of fishermen like Martin. They won’t receive any money directly, explains Sergi Tudela, the General Director of Catalonia Fisheries who is overseeing the project.

“With these funds, they can improve what they need to carry on board - the boxes, all the facilities they need – in order to cope with the problem. And then, of course at the same time, to carry out studies to characterize the origin, the specificities of this marine litter. We are hopeful that if we are successful in this project, this project could be replicated in other areas in the Mediterranean,” Tudela told VOA.

FILE - A volunteer shows plastics retrieved from the ocean, after a garbage collection, ahead of World Environment Day, on La Costilla Beach, on the coast of the Atlantic Ocean in Rota, Spain, June 2, 2018.

The amount of plastic waste on Spanish beaches has grown by 65% in just six years, according to government figures. Martin says the fishing community now understands the scale of the problem. 

“Before we didn't see it that way, we took it and threw it back into the water, we had no conscience. I think that a few years here we have become very aware, nothing is thrown into the water, we collect everything and bring it to shore.”

Abandoned fishing gear makes up a big proportion of the estimated 8 to 12 million tonnes of plastic that are dumped into the world’s oceans every year. Martin and his fishing community are determined to change the industry’s image and be part of the global effort to clean up our oceans.