Enaleia: The First Sustainable Fishing School in Greece – Interview with Lefteris Arapakis

Sustainable Fishing? This topic is very controversial and widely discussed, especially after the documentary „Seaspiracy“. Enaleia is the first school for professional and sustainable fishing in Greece. They offer jobs to unemployed young people and teach them about sustainable fisheries and fishing tourism.
Lefteris Enaleia Gründer mit Fischernetz

Sustainable Fishing? This topic is very controversial and widely discussed, especially after the documentary „Seaspiracy“. Overfishing is a huge problem for marine fauna and fisheries whose income depends on fishing. Sustainable fishing is necessary to make sure fish stocks aren’t overexploited and seafood farms don’t pollute the environment.

Enaleia is the first school for professional and sustainable fishing in Greece. They offer jobs to unemployed young people and teach them about sustainable fisheries and fishing tourism. Moreover, in collaboration with our partner Healthy Seas, they learn about responsible disposal of discarded fishing nets, recycling and circular economy.

Enaleia and Healthy Seas set up 21 collection points, where Greek fishermen can hand in their end-of-life nets as well as the ghost nets they catch in their active nets. 229 fishing boats and approximately 1.000 fishermen are engaged in this cooperation so far Enaleia’s aim is to train, empower and incentivise the local fishing community to collect plastic from the sea, allowing both fish stocks and the ecosystem to recover. One of their biggest projects so far ist the Mediterranean Cleanup.

We talked to Lefteris Arapakis, a 26-year old Greek climate activist, entrepreneur and “Young UN Champion of the Earth 2020”, who founded the start-up Enaleia, about his work and the cleanup project.

How did the story of Enaleia begin?

Back in 2016, in the middle of the Greek financial crisis, I had the idea to create the first Greek fishing school to deal with the major problem at that time, the unemployment of young people, filling the gap of the job market of the fishing industry at that time. It was a journey that still fascinates me with the way things are evolved.

What exactly distinguishes you from a conventional fishery? 

Our fishing school aimed to provide knowledge and skills that would make the new people who would enter the industry apply modern sustainable fishing techniques protecting fish stock and marine ecosystems. An indicative example is the “Fish Smart” project that enables fishermen to convert their vessels into touristic facilities, increasing their income without the need for fishing.

How did the experienced fishermen react to you? 

Managing such a wide network of fishermen is not always an easy task. However, we have achieved to build a relationship that is based on common trust. It is a great success factor that our network is growing with new fishermen who come to us after introducing other fishermen. It is so satisfying to realize that your project works so well that someone not only wants to participate in it but invites others as well to do so.

When and why did the Mediterranean Cleanup project come about?

During the educational trips we conducted in terms of the curriculum, I realized that many fishermen were bycatching plastic that they were throwing back to the sea, stating that “this is not our problem”. So, I decided to do something about that and this is how the idea of the Mediterranean CleanUp project was born.

How has the situation evolved in the Mediterranean since the beginning?

The Mediterranean CleanUp began a few years ago as a small-scale cleanup project in Greece. Today, it is one of the most successful, efficient, and sustainable marine cleanup projects in Europe. Our vision is to clean the seas, protect marine ecosystems, empower local fishing communities, and integrate the collected marine plastic into the circular economy, reassuring that this plastic will not reenter the sea again. Currently, my organization “Enaleia”, which in Greek means “together with fishermen”, through the Mediterranean CleanUp project has the capacity to clean more than 120.000 Kg of marine plastic from the bottom of the sea annually, engaging more than 1.000 fishermen in Greece and Italy.

Greece is traditionally a fishing country, was it difficult to change the established habits? What do you think are the necessary measures to be taken? 

Indeed, Greece has a great tradition in the fishing industry. On the one side, it was difficult at the beginning to convince professional fishermen to change the way they worked for decades, but on the other side, the fishing tradition of our country helped us to accelerate our project very fast. The game-changer in the whole process was the education and the training we provided. When we explained to fishermen the benefits that both the environment and their own job would gain from joining our action, then we had only to settle the logistics practicalities.

What was the most extraordinary or striking thing you found in the sea?

Every catch is a surprise for our fishermen and an even bigger surprise for us. We have found from whole fridges and track engines to whole boats and remnants of military equipment. In any case, no matter how interesting some items are, unfortunately, they do not belong to the marine ecosystem and as long as they remain there, they cause damages.

How widespread is the problem of ghost nets in the Mediterranean?

Given that the Mediterranean is a sea with a very developed fishing industry, it is not hard to imagine how widespread the problem of ghost nets in the area is in the absence of respective legal frameworks or projects like ours for so many decades. Around one-third of our collected plastic is ghost nets or other abandoned, lost, or otherwise discarded fishing gear. Thus, what we do is to incentivize the fishermen of our network to provide us with their gear whenever they renew it, integrating it into the circular economy like the rest of the marine plastic we collect, avoiding this gear to end up at the bottom of the sea.

What happens today with the plastic waste and the ghost nets that you find?

Today, almost half of the marine plastic we collect is promoted to certified partners of our network for recycling. The rest of it is sent to our upcycling partners in Spain and Netherlands to integrate this plastic into the circular economy being transformed into new products. Especially the nets that we collect are sent to our partners in the Netherlands, Healthy Seas, where they facilitate their upcycling into products like carpets and socks.

You collaborate with Healthy Seas and Nofir, as we do. What does the collaboration look like?

For us, it is a great pleasure to collaborate with organizations like these. Not only because they are organizations with which we share a common vision and values, but also because we can provide a holistic solution to the marine plastic solution problem through partnerships with them. Specifically, with these organizations, we can be sure that our total effort for collecting the plastic from the bottom of the sea is valuable, since not only we remove this plastic from the marine ecosystem, but we also verify that it will be integrated into the circular economy with all the benefits that accompany this fact. Closing the loop is a key success factor for us and we make it happen with the collaboration of our recycling partners.

Do you plan to expand your network of fishermen through Greece and Italy?

Our organization is in the process of constant growth in terms of partnerships and collaborations. Regarding Greece, our fishermen network includes the vast majority of them; however, we plan to operate soon in further Greek ports. Concerning Italy, at the moment, we operate in one port, having already planned to expand our activities in the country to at least two new ports in collaboration with the local fishing communities.

What are your goals for the next years?

The next year, our main goals are to increase the portion of the upcycled marine plastic we collect and expand our operations beyond Europe. For the former, we are continuously in discussions with potential partners from all over the world that could exploit new technologies for utilizing any type of plastic we collect, while for the latter, we are preparing the ground to expand our operations, sharing our knowledge and experience in projects in Africa, SE Asia, and the US.

Do you sometimes feel that the problem is too big?

Actually, we don’t feel that the problem is too big; we see it every day and every night when our fishing vessels come to the port bringing bags full of plastic. The problem of marine plastic pollution is one of the key challenges that we need to face in terms of climate action. There is a strong necessity for holistic approaches that include the education of the local communities, the mitigation of the pollution, and the proper waste management so that we can avoid the reentrance of the collected plastic back to the sea. However, talking every day with young people worldwide who want to replicate projects like ours in their areas, I feel more than optimistic that it is not too late to tackle the problem. Of course, to achieve that, all the relevant stakeholders from civil society to the governments and the companies should undertake their stake in this effort, but I feel that the ground for something like this is more prepared than ever before.

We know how big the problem of marine plastic is and that our oceans need new, sustainable fishing techniques to survive. Enaleia tackles both issues with one approach and we are convinced that they’re creating real change in the fishing industry. Thank you for the interview and good luck on the further journey!

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