Fishing for Litter – Denmark

November 2004

Marine litter has become an increasingly serious environmental, economic, health and aesthetic problem around the world. Discarded items can travel long distances with ocean currents. Marine litter consists to a great extent of plastics, metal and glass – materials that do not break down easily or quickly. These items are having an increasingly detrimental impact on fishing in Scandinavian waters of the North Sea. In Denmark, the Save the North Sea campaign is encouraging fishermen to ‘fish for litter’, so that debris can be returned to a marine litter recycling unit in Skagen Municipality.

The North Sea Rubbish Dump

The North Sea has become a rubbish dump in which 20,000 tonnes of waste is deposited each year. The waste includes old trawls (open-mouthed bag-nets for dragging along the sea bed) and nets from fishing activities, plastic, metal and glass. The worst offenders throw cans and barrels containing paint and chemicals into the sea. This ruins fishing operations and the marine environment, as well as spoiling recreational areas along the coast adjacent to the heavily trafficked waters. Coastal communities around the North Sea live mainly on fishing and tourism and are therefore hit twice as hard when the sea is misused as a rubbish dump, a problem that is steadily worsening.

Denmark, Norway and Iceland are among the ten biggest fishing nations in the world. Many fish and shellfish are damaged and killed by the rubbish in the sea. Thus, while fish stocks are depleting due to increased fishing and increasing deaths due to pollution, the quality of fish that is caught is deteriorating. In the light of the fact that the Nordic countries supply about half of the fish consumed in the EU countries, the impact extends beyond the countries bordering the North Sea. The problem also costs the individual fisherman time and money.

‘We have some oil cans, some with paint, and the paint is not drying under water. So when we are taking the fish in it is spoilt’.
(Henrik, fisherman)

Marine Litter

Marine litter is long-lived and active in its impact for decades, both directly and indirectly. It is an eyesore, as it destroys the beauty of the sea and the coastal zone. More importantly, it is not just a visible threat to marine life; it is also an invisible one. It is found in horrendous quantities on the seabed, where it kills and injures out of our sight. ‘Ghost fishing’ by discarded or lost fishing nets is just one of several examples. Marine litter threatens marine and coastal biological diversity by destroying coastal ‘nurseries’, where new life would otherwise emerge. Litter items can also function as a means of transport for invasive species between sea (and land) areas. Marine litter also brings economic costs and losses to fishermen, boat owners in general, coastal communities, tax payers, farmers, and individuals.

© Zul/ITDG
© Zul/ITDG

Approximately 70 per cent of marine rubbish sinks to the bottom, 15 per cent floats on the surface, and 15 per cent is washed up onto the coasts. Dutch research in the North Sea has estimated that there is an average of 110 pieces of litter per km2 of seabed. This equates to a volume of 600,000 m3 of marine litter on the North Sea bed. About 90 per cent of the marine litter found floating on top of the water is estimated to be plastic, including polystyrene. Plastic items can take up to 450 years to decompose. These light objects can easily harm marine life through physical impact or by releasing dangerous elements into their habitat.

The litter is often found far from human sources of pollution, demonstrating the distance that floating items can travel and the range of their potential impact. For example, the prevailing current brings large amounts of litter from the entire North Sea area to the west coast of Sweden. Litter can come from both ocean-based and land-based sources. Ocean-based sources include merchant ships and ferries, fishing vessels, naval vessels, pleasure craft, offshore oil or gas platforms, and fish farms. Land-based sources include municipal landfills located on the coast, transport of waste by river from landfills and industrial outputs, discharge of untreated sewage and storm water, industrial facilities, and tourism.

The Threat to Marine Life

Direct damage to marine life can be caused by a number of litter-related incidents:

  • Entanglement and entrapment mean that an animal becomes snared by litter, or trapped inside litter. This may happen accidentally or because the animal has been attracted to the item. An animal may try to use a piece of marine litter for shelter or as nesting material, and never be able to find its way out again. Even if an animal survives the wounds of wriggling free from entanglement, these wounds may become infected or inhibit its future survival.
  • Ingestion occurs when animal swallow litter items, often because they mistake it for food. For example, turtles eat plastic bags, mistaking them for jellyfish. Ingestion can lead to starvation or malnutrition if the item prevents ingestion of proper food or digestion.
  • Destruction or smothering of the seabed can hamper the life of animals living on the seabed. Litter buried in sediments can harm organisms dwelling there, while plastic sheets can inhibit the exchange of oxygen between water and sediments.
  • The accumulation of toxic substances can directly harm marine life. Plastic pellets are often found in large concentrations within the stomachs of marine animals. The toxic substances can be absorbed by small animals, leading to bioaccumulation in other animals feeding on them.
  • Transportation of invasive species occurs when organisms attach themselves to marine litter. Small crustaceans and other animals, algae, bacteria and fungi are transported to areas they would not normally reach, resulting in increased competition between animals for marine resources.
  • Disturbances from mechanical beach cleaning can stress and even kill animals living in coastal zones. Cleaning can also destroy their habitat.

A Collective Effort

The problem of overwhelming the world’s oceans and seas with our waste products in being addressed through a concerted effort to change the attitudes of users of the North Sea. The Save the North Sea project is a collaborative effort between seven organisations in Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Great Britain, and the Netherlands. Information meetings have been held in municipalities dependent upon fishing, as well as on a national and international scale, aiming to change the attitudes and behaviour among fishermen.

Save the North Sea: campaign objectives

  • Create a public awareness campaign with a positive tone focused on showing that marine litter is a global issue and must be solved by international cooperation.
  • Map attitudes and behaviour towards marine litter by conducting market research studies as well as in-depth interviews.
  • Expand the research on effects of plastic litter on marine life in North Sea region and incorporate this research material into the campaign.
  • Expand the Marine Environmental Awareness courses and the Fishing for Litter Initiative to other North Sea countries.
  • Create a Marine Litter study programme in schools for children and youth.
  • Extend the Individual Blue Flag certificate programme as an instrument for taking personal responsibility for the reduction of marine litter.
  • Conduct a pilot study on recycling of mixed-material fishing nets/equipment and investigate relevant waste management systems for these.

The Save the North Sea campaign has been listed by the UN Habitat programme as a case of ‘good practice’. The Dubai International Award for Best Practices to Improve the Living Environment was established in 1995. In 2004, over 700 projects entered the competition with only 10 receiving the accolade of ‘best practice’. The others that meet the criteria are classified as ‘good practice’ scenarios. To achieve this status, the Save the North Sea campaign has been classified as a successful initiative with the following characteristics:

  • A tangible improvement to people’s quality of life.
  • A partnership between the public, private and civic sectors of society.
  • Socially, culturally, economically and environmentally sustainable.

Shredding the Waste

The Danish partner in the Save the North Sea campaign is Skagen Education Centre. As part of the project, a new machine has been developed to recycle the discarded trawls and plastic crates, barrels and pallets that are being collected by local fisherman. ‘Fishing for Litter’ is a campaign to encourage fishermen to remove the marine litter. In this scheme, private boat users can take an active role by making a personal commitment to the ‘Individual Blue Flag Award Campaign’. Blue Flag is an international campaign that was started to protect the marine environment in harbours and on beaches. The Blue Flag Campaign is owned and run by the independent non-profit organisation Foundation for Environmental Education (FEE). By following a few simple criteria an individual can become a member of the Individual Blue Flag Campaign and contribute to a cleaner North Sea. The criteria include a pledge not to pollute the waters and to collect waste and return it to land. Once it is returned to land, the waste is sorted and eligible products are sent to the Skagen Education Centre for recycling.

Skagen Municipality

The Municipality of Skagen is geographical located at the northern point of Denmark. About 100,000 ships pass through the waters of Skagen every year. An increasing number of cargo vessels are also using the harbour of Skagen as a base and transit harbour. The harbour is one of the foremost fishing harbours in Denmark. Fish, shellfish and industrial fish products are exported to more than 40 countries. In the harbour area there are about 100 enterprises, both small and large. Skagen faces a dilemma: the local Skagen economy depends on its fishing industry, yet the increasing use of Skagen waters by trawlers and tankers is endangering the industry. The Municipality therefore needs to protect the local supply of fish in its waters, while allowing the industry to thrive.

In Skagen, the returned litter is transformed into a granulate material that can be recycled by the plastic industry to create new packaging. It is also possible to shred wooden crates and pallets, which can later be used as fuel in fires and stoves. The shredding machine is located at Skagen Truck Services in Skagen harbour. The machine, which weighs approximately 6 tonnes, is able to process a vast amount of plastic materials by chopping the used plastic products into small fragments. If the plastic, after the process, is still to be burnt in an incinerator it is better that the product is as fine as possible. If old netting is thrown into an incinerator without first being processed there is a risk that the temperature will get too high. Finely chopped pieces of plastics can be burned in a more controlled way.

© Carl Poulsen
© Carl Poulsen

Cleaner Futures

By changing the attitudes of all sea users, the Save the North Sea Campaign aims to create a cleaner environment for all – for marine wildlife, for fishermen, and for recreational users. With the Danish fishing industry thriving, they rely on this change of attitude, and have been actively participating. Those carrying the Blue Flag signal to others that they are collecting marine debris for recycling in Skagen. The more people see this Blue Flag, the more they will be encouraged to respect the quality of the waters. Increasing this sense of responsibility will lead to cleaner waters in the future.

Further Information


Jacobson, C. (2003). ‘The North Sea is a rubbish dump and fishing operations are being ruined’. Nordfiskeri: Nordic Fisheries. 22(b).

Participating Organisations

Interreg IIIB

KIMO: Kommunenes Internasjonale Miljøorganisasjon: Local Authorities International Environmental Organisation

Nordic Council

Save the North Sea

Donor and Supporting Organisations

Department for International Development (DFID)


World Bank


Danish Institute for Fisheries Research

Institute for Fisheries Management and Coastal Community Development (IFM)

ITDG Technical Briefs

North Sea Advisory Council