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The unresolved issue of dolly rope on Dutch beaches

The unresolved issue of dolly rope on Dutch beaches

Beaches are littered with dolly rope, a serious threat to our environment and wildlife. Will the EU Single-Use Plastics Directive and international obligations force the Netherlands to ban dolly rope in the near future?

Dolly rope, a bundle of plastic threads protecting fishing nets from abrasion, is one of the most commonly found plastics on the Dutch beaches. The new era of environmental commitments and action plans by the European Union might bring about change. The Leiden Advocacy Project on Plastic (LAPP) was commissioned by De Noordzee Foundation (a Dutch independent nature and environmental organisation focussing on sustainable use of the North Sea) to analyse the European and international obligations of the Netherlands to prevent pollution by dolly rope.

Why focus on dolly rope?

It is not uncommon to see huge amounts of plastic scattered along the Dutch coastline. Since the beginning of the pandemic the situation has only worsened, with protective medical equipment being littered en masse. Today, according to a European impact assessment, 80 to 85% of marine litter consists of plastics. Abandoned, lost, or disposed fishing gear represents around 27% of this total. This is equivalent to over 11,000 tonnes per year in Europe. A significant and serious proportion of this kind of fishing gear is not collected for recycling or waste treatment, which causes a serious threat to marine ecosystems, biodiversity, and even human health.

According to the Plastic Soup Foundation, dolly rope is the most frequently found waste item on the Dutch beaches. It is composed of eye-catching blue and orange threads, used to protect the underside of a trawling net against wear and tear. While the rope acts as a protective buffer between the seabed and the net, its strands inevitably tear off and turn into marine litter. The latest beach-monitoring data highlights that there are 100 pieces of dolly rope per 100 metres of examined shoreline along the North Sea. This amounts to an estimated loss in the Netherlands and Belgium of 65,000 kilograms per year at the very least. Dutch consultancy firm Tauw estimates that 50% of the dolly rope attached to nets disappears into the sea. De Noordzee Foundation asked LAPP to examine the rules that may be applicable to dolly rope in the Netherlands and beyond. The aim was to assess whether current Dutch initiatives regarding fishing gear, and dolly rope in particular, are sufficient to uphold its obligations under European and international law.

The new era of EU environmental initiatives

On the EU law side, the Netherlands is subject to the Single-Use Plastics Directive (SUP), which must be implemented by mid-2021. Adopted in December 2018, the SUP is part of the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy and presents the environmental commitment of the EU regarding tackling plastic pollution. The SUP aims to prevent and reduce the impact of single-use plastic products, in particular on human health and in the aquatic environment. Within this context, the SUP Directive focuses on the 10 most commonly found single-use plastic items on European beaches, which includes fishing gear.

The SUP creates new obligations for Member States in tackling the use of fishing gear containing plastics. The SUP addresses abandoned, lost and disposed fishing gear. The use of dolly rope falls within this definition. Although it is problematic to identify the sole or main function of dolly rope, it can be argued that dolly rope is meant to be lost while protecting the fishing net from wear and tear.

As a part of the fishing net, dolly rope falls within the scope of the Directive and the Extended Producer Responsibility scheme (EPR) imposed by the latter. An EPR scheme aims to put the financial and organisational responsibility for the management of waste fishing gear containing plastic on their producers, in line with the polluter pays principle. In this way, the EPR seeks to ensure the products' proper disposal while creating an incentive for producers to improve the design of their products and enhance a so-called ‘eco-design’.

However, despite high expectations, little change has taken place so far. The COVID-19 crisis and the subsequent economic recovery plans have lowered the implementation of the SUP Directive on the agenda, with some even attempting to postpone it.

Meanwhile, one can only hope that the implementing decree currently in preparation in the Netherlands will tackle the dolly rope issue. Although the SUP creates new obligations for Member States in tackling the use of fishing gear containing plastics such as the EPR scheme, based on European law it seems difficult to demand a full ban on the use of dolly rope. Unfortunately, dolly rope did not gain the same priority as other single-use products tackled by the SUP.

Potential of the international and regional framework

From an international law perspective, dolly rope pollution also falls within the scope of some preceding multilateral agreements generating obligations for the Netherlands. Most prominently, Annex V of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) sets out limitations to garbage disposal at sea with an additional focus on plastics, such as dolly rope. Moreover, the North Sea, as a ‘special area’ under this Annex, requires a more restrictive regime for addressing such pollution.

Both the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and, on the regional level, the 1992 Convention for the Protection of the Marine Environment of the North-East Atlantic (OSPAR), aim, in whole or in part, to protect the marine environment by preventing and mitigating pollution from all sources. Under the 2014 OSPAR Regional Action Plan, the Netherlands committed itself to investigating dolly rope pollution and to developing practices to reduce it. This Action Plan will be reviewed in 2021.

Although marine plastic pollution is being tackled by some existing agreements, it has not been comprehensively addressed as a stand-alone issue. Therefore, the debate on introducing a dedicated plastic-focused treaty continues. This initiative led by the Nordic countries has been gaining momentum in the past three years. A common global solution could perhaps be the key to the growing crisis, considering that plastic debris does not recognise national borders and has the ability to accumulate far from its source.

Why now?

This research comes at a crucial time as Europe is strengthening its policies on single-use plastics and global awareness around tackling marine litter is on the rise. Furthermore, all European Member States, including the Netherlands, have committed themselves to the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development which includes SDG 14: ‘keeping the oceans healthy’.

In light of a sustainable recovery path from COVID-19 and ‘building back better’, the Netherlands should take a closer look at the way dolly rope is being used. Even though some promising alternatives for dolly rope are being researched and discussed, as long as these blue and orange plastic threads are used on a large scale during fishing operations, a serious threat is posed to the marine environment in general and marine wildlife in particular. In view of such a major environmental hazard, it is time for the Netherlands to take decisive action towards putting an end to pollution from dolly rope, in line with its European and international obligations.

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