Greece Pays its Fishermen to Recycle the Plastic Found in their Nets

Fish populations have declined so much that there are some days that fishermen find more plastic than fish.


(Marjolein Hameleers /

Fishing has been a way of life in Greece since ancient times. With thousands of islands in the Aegean and Ionian seas and a collective memory of plentiful fish just waiting to be caught, it is very easy to see why Greece has over 35,000 fishermen. Many of the fishermen own small fishing boats, with generations fishing together. But today, there is little left to catch in the Greek seas.

Michalis Kastis, a fishermen from Leros, told NPR that after three days at sea he and his wife (he can no longer afford to pay a crew) caught only one red mullet. He blames the lack of fish on the large commercial trawlers that scoop huge amount of fish out of the sea.

"They destroyed everything," he told NPR . "Soon, after five years, [the] Mediterranean Sea is gonna be a desert — empty."

In a 2014 study of declining fish population in the Mediterranean Sea, lead author Paraskevas Vasilakopoulos said that most of the fish stocks in the sea are below biological limits due to over exploitation. What is in abundance in the sea is plastic waste.

Bottles, cans, plastics, they’re commonplace,” Dimitris Dalianis a 47-year old fishermen told The Guardian. “We’re talking about lots of waste, lots of garbage,” he said. “We’re finding it almost everywhere.”

“In Greece the worst sea of all is the Argo Saronic Gulf [near Athens], possibly because it is enclosed,” Dalianis said “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.”

Dalianis has spent over 30 years on the seas, he is the youngest trawler captain in Piraeus and now he and his five-man crew are collecting the plastic waste they find in their nets instead of throwing it back into the water. Dalianis returned from a three-day trip with a bin overflowing with plastic crates, bottles, plastic sheeting, he told The Guardian.

Now, Dalianis is being paid a monthly fee of  €200 per month to pick up the plastic waste. The money supplements what he can make fishing and helps to clean up the seas.

The project is the brainchild of Lefteris Arabakis who comes from a long line of fishermen. He told The Guardian that his great-grandfather escaped Smyrna in a fishing boat when the Turkish army sacked the city in 1922. You could say that the has salt water running through his veins.

Arabakis, 24, started the program last May with only 10 boats but many more have followed. “In our two-and-a half-month pilot program last year 5,000 kilos of waste were collected from the sea, of which 84 percent was plastic,” he told The Guardian. “In two years, our hope is that with 100 boats we’ll be clearing up 10 tons of garbage a month”. The project is funded by the AC Laskaridis Charitable Foundation and a recycling group in the Netherlands is upcycling the plastic waste.

Many of Arabakis friends have left the country that has been struggling economically for a decade  and on an austerity budget, but he didn't want to leave. In fact, he is the first member of his family to graduate from a university. His degree is in business and economics. He decided to put his expertise to good use and to open a fishing school to train a new generation of Greek fisherman sustainable ways to fish. With financial help from Greek and foreign donors including the Clinton Foundation, Arabakis co-founded Enaleia, in 2017. Enaleia has produced 63 graduates to date.

“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,” Arabakis told The Guardian. “There is a huge need for younger eco-minded people,” he said. “

While 100 fishing boats bring in the plastic caught in their nets is just a drop in the bucket, it is a good start in changing the mindset of the men and women who fish in the plastic polluted seas. With better legislation and enforcement, in time, the fish could rebound, and this time-honored tradition will continue in the Greek isles.

5 Incredible Organizations That Are Making the World's Oceans Cleaner
250 Major Brands Pledge to Cut All Plastic Waste
Rotterdam's Floating Park Is Made 100% from Recycled Plastic Waste