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The real threat to the ocean is the fish on your plate – not the straw in your drink

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Animals who become entangled in heavy fishing gear can drown, die of exhaustion after weeks of struggling to free themselves, or slowly starve to death (Picture: Getty)

Today is World Oceans Day, when people are encouraged to take action to protect our life-giving oceans and the animals who inhabit them – and this often involves reducing our use of plastic.

Theres no denying that plastic pollution is one of the greatest threats to our oceans – scientists warn that unless we change our ways, therell be more plastic in them than fish by 2050. And the UK is responding to this crisis.

In the year after the government introduced legislation forcing large retailers to charge 5p for every single-use plastic carrier bag, the seven biggest supermarkets doled out over six billion fewer bags.

Frozen food specialist Iceland has pledged to remove all plastic packaging from its range by 2023, and an official ban on plastic straws – which many companies have already ditched in favour of paper ones – along with plastic drink stirrers and cotton buds will come into force in April 2020.

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These are all steps in the right direction, but when tackling this urgent issue, we must remember that items such as straws and plastic bags are just the tip of the iceberg.

If we really want to stem the tide of plastic pollution thats choking our oceans and killing marine animals, wed be a lot better off banishing cod and tuna from our plates. This is because fishing and the rubbish it generates inflicts far more harm on wildlife than straws or plastic bags ever will.

Its easy to understand why plastic straws and bags are under fire – no one who has seen the video footage of a straw being pulled out of a sea turtles nostril or a dolphin entangled in a plastic bag 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, theyd account for about 0.03 per cent of the 8million metric tons of plastics estimated to enter the oceans in a given year.

And despite the reduction in plastic bag use in the UK, the overall amount of sea litter from plastics has remained constant – primarily because of an increase in fishing debris.

Sea turtles and other animals are much more likely to be harmed by lost and discarded fishing gear than by other plastic waste.

Scientists affiliated with The Ocean Cleanup, a group working to reduce plastic pollution, determined that, by weight, fishing nets make up at least 46 per cent of the plastic in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a floating pile of rubbish thats three times the size of France.

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Eel traps, baskets, ropes, and other abandoned fishing gear, also known as ghost gear, make up the majority of the rest. Some 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear enter the worlds oceans every year and can mutilate and kill marine animals for many years afterwards.

Its a gruesome death. Animals 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.

Just last month, a seal trapped in an enormous mass of fishing nets and other litter was spotted off the coast of Cornwall. After rescuers failed to locate him alive, his body eventually washed up on a nearby beach, wrapped in 35 kilograms of plastic.

This animal suffered a prolonged, tortured death, there is no question of that, said a volunteer who inspected the animal. A similar fate befalls millions of other seals, turtles, whales, dolphins, sharks, birds, and other animals.

Humans who consume fish are also at risk, as a study found that the average consumer of seafood unwittingly eats 11,000 pieces of microplastic every year.

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