In less than a year, ‘fishing for litter’ project site shows evidence of environmental recovery

The project ‘Fishing for litter in Guanabara Bay’ is about to complete its first year of starting the collection of solid waste from the marine environment in the surroundings of Ilha do Governador. Since April 2022, the 23 fishers from the two traditional fishing villages involved in the project, Praia dos Bancários and Z-10, have managed the waste collection alongside their hand fishing. The work they have done so far, although it may seem modest given the size of the pollution in the area, shows visible results of the recovery of mangroves and degraded beaches, which have been recognised as waste dumping sites.

The fishers collect waste at eight spots around Ilha do Governador (map 1). The Bancário Beach Community, located north of the Island, has been collecting from mangroves, areas directly impacted by the Jardim Gramacho Metropolitan Landfill, one of the largest in Latin America. Located in Duque de Caxias, it was operated for decades as a controlled landfill until 2012, and used to receive most of the waste generated in the municipality of Rio de Janeiro.

The Z-10 fishing village, considered one of the oldest in Brazil, collects waste from six locations in the south of the island. It is located in the city’s most extensive protected mangrove area, the Environmental Protection and Urban Recovery Area (APARU) of Jequiá, which includes remnants of the Atlantic Forest and associated ecosystems. However, due to intense human activities, the mangrove area that originally covered more than 260 km2, now covers only 80 km2.

The local ecosystems are damaged in several aspects, as many organisms cannot survive the high pollution levels. “I think it’s imperative to remove litter from Guanabara Bay, because in the mangroves, the litter gets on top of the crab holes, and they can’t get out.” says Alair, one of the fishers participating in the project. “These days, we find nets with more than 20 crabs dying because of the amount of rubbish in the areas where they live.” adds Naldo, another fisher involved with the project.

The solid waste that ends its life on the coast and in the mangroves of the bay causes significant degradation of the environment, the local flora and fauna and the water resources. Nevertheless, this process also directly affects fishing activity and causes a major socio-cultural disruption. Getting around the problem, therefore, brings multiple benefits.

“As a fisherman, it is a great satisfaction to be helping nature to recover through the collection of waste, even if many people think it is like sweating ice. Not to mention that it helps our fishing too, the sea life can live, and we can make a living.” said fisher, Mario.

It can be seen, therefore, that the waste collection activities, supported by the fisher’s awareness, have produced changes in their world view. They report a sense of professional achievement associated with the hope of transforming the local environment, highlighting the need for continuous actions that result in lasting effects, such as environmental education.

The problem of Guanabara Bay’s pollution

Surrounded by the Metropolitan Region of Rio de Janeiro, the ecosystems of Guanabara Bay are affected by the population density and activities of the municipalities that are the largest generators of solid waste in the State: São Gonçalo, Belford Roxo, Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro and Duque de Caxias. The problem was caused by the disorderly urban occupation process not followed by implementing or improving basic sanitation, urban cleaning and solid waste management services. The bay also suffers from the presence of the State’s main sanitary landfills and the formation of several dumps.
Although deactivated, the dumps still receive waste in a clandestine, illegal and irregular manner. Map 2 (source) shows their location and the sanitary landfills that are active waste outlets in the bay. Dumps are among the primary sources of soil and groundwater pollution and are responsible for greenhouse gas emissions from the solid waste sector.

The map also shows the rivers receiving leachate generated in these areas, a by-product of the decomposition of solid waste in landfills, characterised by high toxicity. The 55 rivers, streams and channels that flow into the bay were almost all rectified and are used as drainage systems. They conduct polluted waters due to the degradation caused by the discharge of industrial and domestic effluents, the disposal of a large volume of solid waste, besides the accidental oil spill from oil tankers.

In order to stop the advance of the floating rubbish into Guanabara Bay, the government of Rio de Janeiro State launched in 2004 the project ‘Ecobarriers’, which saw the installation of barriers across the estuary of its contributing rivers. However, several obstacles put the operation of this system in check, such as maintenance costs, the high density of waste, and the difficulty in removing bulky materials, such as furniture and electronics, for instance.

These items also challenge the collection carried out by the fishers of the project. “We find all kinds of rubbish, a lot of sofas, a lot of refrigerators. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like we are working at sea, but in a furniture and appliance shop.” said Tiago, echoed by his colleague Luciano: “When we go to collect, we find 8, 10 sofas and we can’t get them out because of the low tide, our hands are tied.”
Much still needs to be done. The project has proven that it is possible to associate actions to improve the group’s livelihoods with raising the profile of the environmental problem caused by the dumping of solid materials in marine environments.