“The best days are when we catch nothing at all.” Eric the skipper briefed me on the forthcoming fishing trip through Amsterdam’s canals and was hoping we would return with empty nets. But this was an angling trip like no other- we would be catching plastic waste.
Plastic Whale was formed by Marius Smit in 2012 following a visit to Indonesia when he became shocked by the amount of waste littering the country. However, on returning to Amsterdam he discovered the issue was closer to home with canals full of plastic detritus. Plastic Whale was formed and now has a fleet of 9 boats in Amsterdam and one in Rotterdam. They offer tours to visitors, fishing for some of the 60-70,000 plastic bottles that end up in the canals each year and subsequently in the oceans. The boats are constructed from recycled plastic bottles and the flooring from the tops. It takes between 6-8000 bottles to make a boat and they run on electricity, minimising pollution. The company also fashions office furniture from plastic bottles.
We left the Westerkirk Quay near the Anne Frank House. It was not long before we spotted our first catch. A plastic carrier bag was scooped aboard to cheers from the nine- strong fishing team visiting from Russia, Sweden, Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands. We removed beer cans that had been artfully balanced on the ledge of a bridge, and plastic drinking straws from the edge of the canal. Watched by other tourists, a polystyrene crate was heaved aboard and joined the growing pile of waste. A significant amount of litter clustered around the boats moored on the canals and we soon gathered nets full of glass and plastic bottles to the cheers of locals, glad to see awareness being raised about the hazards. Amsterdam’s canals have cleaner water , largely due to the regulations requiring houseboats to have a sewerage system instead of discharging directly into the canal.
Eric talked about the canals and the history as we sailed down the Prinsengracht and headed towards the Amstel. Small details such as the NAP signs on the canal wall were pointed out as we searched for trash. This is a national benchmark that indicates the level of water in the canal system.
One of Eric’s more unusual finds was a bag of money which caused a lot of interest but unfortunately turned out to be fake. The plastic fishing tours frequently find inflatable dolls, dumped in canals after stag parties, for which the city is famous. These discoveries can be scary because only the head is visible on the surface, appearing really sinister. Today there were masses of deflated orange balloons; the legacy of the King’s Day celebrations a few days before. Amsterdam is famed for cycling but sees 40 unwanted bicycles a day end up in the canals.
We laughed out loud as more items were caught in the fishing nets and brought on board. A baby’s dummy, make up containers, lighters, and even a plastic helium filled heart shaped balloon joined the collection of trash. A tour guide from a neighbouring boat asked his guests to give us a cheer as we leaped onto the canal edges to grab pieces of plastic rubbish. This was probably one of the few tours I have been on where the locals cheer on the tourists, although a Japanese couple looked aghast as I hauled a soggy carrier bag out of the water. Nearby, a bird had fashioned a nest from plastic which we could not disturb.
When we moored up after two hours, six large sacks were filled with plastic waste and other trash which would have ended up in the ocean. This is just a small part of the larger task needed to reduce plastic waste but it was definitely a tour with a difference and visibly raised awareness of the problems not only with me but other visitors watching the antics as we enjoyed ourselves on Amsterdam’s canals. “Our business model is simple,” said Eric as we prepared to leave,” We plan to go out of business because that means we won’t be needed any longer.”
Information for Visitors
Plastic Fishing Tours last 2 hours and must be booked online in advance . Tours cost £23 per person . Children are welcome but must be accompanied by an adult. Lifejackets are available. Gloves and fishing nets are provided.