Greek Fishermen Battle To Clean A Cruel Sea

The fish market at Keratsini comes alive at night. Under floodlights, crews in rubber waders and boots wash down the decks of boats moored in the harbour, repair nets dangling from cranes, and put on ice the shrimp, calamari, mullet and hake that are their latest pickings. Recently other things – objects that might never have been pulled from the sea – have also supplemented hauls.

“We’re talking about lots of waste, lots of garbage,” says Dimitris Dalianis. “We’re finding it almost everywhere.” At 47, Dalianis has never thought of himself as an eco-warrior. Like trawler captains the world over, fish has been his business. But after 30 years on the high seas – “a hard life, a lonely life” – the man more usually known as Piraeus’s youngest trawler captain has also acquired a reputation for removing the detritus from the waters plied by his 26-metre boat, Urania. And these days, no matter how deep his nets go, there is nearly nothing he doesn’t discover. “Bottles, cans, plastics, they’re commonplace,” he says, momentarily breaking into a smile at the thought of it being cleaned up. “I’ve seen dolphins and turtles out there and I know they ingest it. The sea can be cruel, it can make a man hard, but it feels good to know we are dealing with it and the crew like the little bonus [of compensation] too.” Not that long ago, Dalianis concedes he would have done what almost all his peers have always done, which is throw the debris back into the water. Now he and his five-man Egyptian crew are conscientious rubbish collectors, keeping whatever waste their nets pick up in a bin that nestles between the piles of neatly packed ropes on Urania’s deck. On his return to land after a three-day trip around the Cycladic islands of Kithnos, Serifos and Andros the bin is overflowing. On top lies a shell- and weed-encrusted black plastic crate, plastic bottles, the remnants of several layers of plastic sheeting, carpets and cans.

“Just look at this, it’s been in the sea for so long it’s created its own eco-system,” exclaims Lefteris Arabakis, holding the crate aloft. “All of it will be taken to the warehouse laboratory for analysis and, if it can, be either recycled or upcycled.” At 24, Arabakis belongs to a family of fishermen who go back five generations. Like his father, Vangelis, and his grandfather, Lefteris, and his great-grandfather before him, who fled Smyrna (now Izmir) in a fishing boat when the Turkish army sacked the city in 1922, he grew up smelling the sea. Recruiting fishermen to rid Greek waters of rubbish is his brainchild; one that grew not only from his love for the ocean but a desire to re-energise fishing in a country where the sector is dying fast. The project started with 10 boats last May. Now scores have signed up with plans afoot to bring in about 100 fishing vessels by 2020. “In our two-and-a half-month pilot programme last year 5,000 kilos of waste was collected from the sea, of which 84% was plastic,” he explains. “In two years our hope is that with 100 boats we’ll be clearing up 10 tons of garbage a month.” He readily acknowledges the challenge. The sheer scale of the task was laid bare in a report compiled by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and the World Economic Forum predicting that by 2050 there’ll be more plastic than fish in the sea. Oceans, it projected, will by then have at least 937m tons of plastic compared with 895m tons of fish. Attributing the blame squarely to the 20-fold increase in the use of plastic over the past 50 years, the study observed that the equivalent of a rubbish truck of plastic was dumped in the oceans every minute.

“In Greece the worst sea of all is the Argo Saronic Gulf [near Athens], possibly because it is enclosed,” Dalianis says. “There you find everything. I’ve found washing machines, model planes, toy dolls and hundreds upon hundreds of bottles. There are days when we find more plastic than fish.” Arabakis conceived the idea to reward crews if they collected rubbish – with a monthly fee of €200 per boat – after witnessing a fisherman throw a can back into the sea when he was clearing nets on his boat off the Cycladic island of Naxos in 2016. What shocked the young, pony-tailed Greek most was the can’s sell-by date. “It was 1987, which meant it had been there for years. When I protested, the guy said, ‘But I am not paid to keep this stuff,’ and that is when the idea came to me,” he says. “It just seemed so necessary and real.” Like many his age, choosing to stay in Greece, a country hollowed out by prolonged austerity and the depredations that have come with almost a decade of economic crisis, has also proved to be a challenge. “A lot of my friends were among the hundreds of thousands who sought better lives abroad, but I really wanted to stay and I needed a challenge to do that,” says Arabakis, the first member of his family to graduate, with a university degree in business and economics. “We Greeks have a history with the sea, but somehow have never had a fishing school, one that could train people, help reduce our high unemployment rate and also help clean our waters. It seemed like the challenge I was looking for.”

In 2017, with backing from several Greek and foreign donors, including the Clinton Foundation, he co-founded Enaleia, a school that not only aims to augment the number of trained trawler captains and engineers but introduce sustainable ways of fishing to an older generation on Greek islands. The average age of the nation’s estimated 35,000 fishermen was 64 last year, according to Greece’s agriculture ministry. With fish stocks dropping by a third since the mid-1990s, sustainable fishing techniques have become ever more urgent. “There is a huge need for younger eco-minded people,” he says. “We’d like to promote fishing tourism because it was legalised in 2015, but if tourists are to join eco-friendly tours that will allow fishermen to fish less and earn more money they need to be able to speak English first.” Thus far Enaleia has produced 63 graduates, almost all men. Panagiotis Koumondouros, who studied applied mathematics and physics at Athens’ prestigious Polytechnic, is typical of the new breed of professionals it is keen to attract. After years of failing to find work at the height of Greece’s financial crisis, he joined the school last year. “I’ve always loved spear fishing, and after years of surviving by playing online poker, I said ‘Why not?’” he says, shivering in the late-night cold that has suddenly descended on the fish market. “I learned so much about the sea, and fish, and ocean depths and where to find them. Now I have plans to get a boat with another fisherman and go with other volunteers to this place where I know there is this giant ghost net and tons of debris and clean it all up.”

Arabakis is already in partnership with a recycling group in the Netherlands that has created bracelets, socks and carpets out of discarded nets. But he recognises that even if he attains his monthly goal – the project is currently being funded by the AC Laskaridis Charitable Foundation – “it will be the equivalent of holding back global marine pollution by a minute.” Still, his father Vangelis, who is also a fish merchant at the market, believes it is people like his son who are positive voices in what are fast becoming ocean pools of plastic negativity. “I knew no better, I always threw stuff in the ocean, but he, like young people everywhere, has been educated differently,” he mutters. “Yes, there is room for grief, the sadness of it all, but also happiness that a new generation is finally doing something about it.”

Credit: Helena Smith for The Observer, 30 March 2019.