For the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life

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for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life

May 2009

Australian Government

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

Cover image (main):

Cape Arnhem, Northern Territory. Dr Ilse Kiessling.

Cover image (left-hand inlayed):

Customs officers Annette Brewer and Craig Butler disentangling a turtle from a derelict fishing net, north of Middle Island, Ashmore Reef, Craig Butler.

Cover image (centre inlayed):

Prince of Wales Island, Torres Strait. Dr Ilse Kiessling.

Cover image (right-hand inlayed):

Nesting Gray Headed Albatross (Thalassarche chysotoms) at Petral Peak (IA 420B4), Macquarie Island. Photographer Unknown, Australian Antarctic Division © Commonwealth of Australia.

Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

© Commonwealth of Australia 2009

This work is copyright. Apart from any use as permitted under the Copyright Act 1968, no part may be reproduced by any process without prior written permission from the Commonwealth, available from the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts. Requests and inquiries concerning reproduction and rights should be addressed to:

Assistant Secretary

Marine Environment Branch

Australian Government Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts

GPO Box 787


This publication is available at:

For additional hard copies, please contact the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts, Community

Information Unit on 1800 803 772.

The contents of this document have been compiled using a range of source materials and is valid as at May 2009. The Commonwealth Government is not liable for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of or reliance on the contents of the document.


‘Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris’ was listed in August 2003 as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). A key threatening process is a process that ‘threatens

or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community’.

Under the EPBC Act, the Australian Government implements the threat abatement plan (TAP) as it applies to Commonwealth areas and seeks the collaboration of state, territory and local governments and other stakeholders to implement the TAP as it applies to them.

Harmful marine debris negatively impacts substantial numbers of Australia’s marine wildlife, including many protected species of birds, turtles and marine mammals. Threat abatement plans focus on strategic approaches to reduce the impacts of key threatening processes that jeopardise the long-term survival of native species and ecological communities. This TAP specifically provides a framework for the abatement of injury and fatality to marine species caused by harmful marine debris.

The Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts is very grateful for the assistance of a number of experts, managers, and community groups who have contributed to the development of this TAP.





2.1 Magnitude of harmful marine debris 2

2.2 Composition of harmful marine debris 2

2.3 Origin of harmful marine debris 3

2.3.1 Domestic sources and management of harmful marine debris 3

2.3.2 International sources of harmful marine debris in Australian waters 5

2.4 Impacts of harmful marine debris on marine wildlife 5

2.4.1 Entanglement 5

2.4.2 Ingestion 6

2.4.3 Other impacts of marine debris 6

2.5 Marine wildlife negatively impacted by harmful marine debris 6

2.5.1 Marine turtles 8

2.5.2 Cetaceans 9

2.5.3 Sharks 10

2.5.4 Seabirds 10


3.1 Current management for the prevention of harmful marine debris 11

3.1.1 Land-based sources 11

3.1.2 Marine-based sources 3.2 Current management for the removal of harmful marine debris 3.3 Current management for the mitigation of the impacts of harmful marine debris 3.4 Current monitoring of harmful marine debris





This background paper provides context to the Threat abatement plan for the impacts of marine debris on vertebrate marine life (Commonwealth of Australia, 2008). The threat abatement plan (TAP) provides a coordinated national approach to the implementation of measures to prevent and mitigate the impacts of harmful marine debris on vertebrate marine life. These documents have been prepared in consultation with representatives of industry, conservation groups, Indigenous organisations,

community and government to meet the Australian Government’s obligations under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) (Appendix A). The findings and recommendations of a number of studies (see References) and the outcomes of two stakeholder workshops held during 2004 have also informed the development of this TAP.

‘Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris’ was listed as a key threatening process in August 2003. For the purposes of the TAP harmful marine debris refers to all plastics and other types of debris from domestic or international sources

that may cause harm to vertebrate marine wildlife. This includes land-sourced waste and garbage (such as bags, bottles, ropes, fibreglass, piping, insulation, paints and adhesives), abandoned fishing gear

from recreational and commercial fisheries (e.g. strapping bands, synthetic ropes, derelict fishing nets, floats, hooks, fishing line and wire trace), and ship-sourced, solid, non-biodegradable floating materials disposed of at sea (e.g. fibreglass, insulation) (TSSC, 2003).

The key threatening process does not include debris that is not harmful to marine wildlife such as floating wooden objects and metal objects which do not cause entanglement and are unable to be ingested. Fishing nets and lines under the control of fishers, and marine debris resulting from the legal disposal of garbage such as food, paper, rags, glass, metal and crockery at sea under the provisions of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships (MARPOL) are outside the scope of the TAP. The main objectives of the TAP are to:

1. Contribute to the long-term prevention of the incidence of harmful marine debris

2. Remove existing harmful marine debris from the marine environment

3. Mitigate the impacts of harmful marine debris on marine species and ecological communities

4. Monitor the quantities, origins and impacts of marine debris and assess the effectiveness of management arrangements over time for the strategic reduction of debris.

2. Defining the key threatening process

Marine debris is one of the world’s five major marine pollutants (ANZECC, 1995), and it has been identified as an issue of growing concern in a number of studies and international conferences.

Information and data on the sources, magnitude and impacts of marine debris around Australia has been derived primarily from land-based coastal surveys. This information probably under-represents the actual quantity of marine debris in Australia’s marine and coastal environments, as debris may sink, may become buried underground or become entangled underwater on rocky outcrops and reefs, and

never float ashore. There is little information available on the magnitude of the debris that is floating in the sea or present on the seabed. In order to better understand the impact of marine debris on marine wildlife, it is important to improve information on the sources, composition and magnitude of debris. In the meantime, existing survey results and anecdotal reports provide a useful perspective on the areas and species most impacted by marine debris.

2.1 Magnitude of harmful marine debris

It is difficult to determine where debris accumulates in the highest concentrations around Australia’s coastal environments, as a comprehensive assessment has not been undertaken. However, available data suggest that high concentrations of debris accumulate on parts of the coastline all around Australia. Specific areas where debris has been reported at comparatively high densities include coasts adjacent to urban centres and remote areas of northwestern Cape York, Groote Eylandt, northeast Arnhem Land, the far north Great Barrier Reef, parts of South Australia including Anxious Bay, parts of Western Australia, southwest Tasmania, and Australia’s sub-Antarctic Islands (Cary et al., 1987; Slip, et al., 1990; Slater, 1991; Slip and Burton, 1992; RAOU, 1996; SDAC, 1996; Frost and Cullen, 1997; Haynes, 1997; Herfort, 1997; Sloan et al., 1998; Pryor, 1999; Kiessling, 2003; Edyvane et al., 2004; White, 2003, 2004,

2006; Eglinton et al., 2005; Roelofs et al., 2005; DTAE and DPIWE, 2007).

Quantities of debris in these areas range from more than 400 kg of debris per kilometre along remote parts of the northern Australian (White, 2006) to 15 kg of debris per kilometre or less on heavily polluted parts of more remote southern Australian coastlines including Australia’s sub-Antarctic Islands (Slip and Burton, 1990; Wace, 1994; Edyvane et al., 2004).

2.2 Composition of harmful marine debris

Plastic is the most prevalent type of debris found on beaches world wide, comprising between 50 —

90% by number of all debris items recorded (Coe and Rogers, 1987; UNEP 2005). In Australia, plastic waste including derelict fishing gear (nets, lines and ropes) is one of the most harmful types of debris to marine wildlife (Pemberton et al., 1992; Slip and Burton, 1992; Chatto, 1995; Laist, 1996; Limpus et al.

2003; Roeger et al., 2005).

Plastics pose a particular threat due to their durability. While plastics do break down into smaller pieces over time, there is no mechanism for biodegradation of conventional plastic (Andrady, 2000) and plastics in the marine environment tend to break down even more slowly than they do on land (Andrady, 1990, 2000; Derraik, 2002).

As plastics are highly durable, it is often hard to distinguish those items that recently entered the marine environment from those that have been circulating for months or many years. The fate and movement of debris after it enters the marine environment is difficult to predict and is likely to depend on a number of factors including whether it is loose or bagged, and its particular physical and chemical characteristics (National Research Council, 1995). For example, large, dense items such as glass bottles and metal items tend to sink, while small, light items may remain suspended in the water column or float, often for long periods of time. Debris may remain on beaches and in coastal waters for different

time periods depending on oceanic currents and wind patterns. Debris may also wash ashore on exposed beaches and drift laterally along the coastline or wash back out to sea (National Research Council, 1995). On less exposed beaches, debris may accumulate indefinitely and become buried in coastal sediments (Gregory, 1999).

Cigarette butts are another type of debris commonly found in Australian waters. Taking up to an estimated five years to break down in seawater, cigarette butts leech toxic chemicals and can be mistaken for food items, posing a direct threat to marine wildlife (Coast keepers, 2008).The composition of

land-based litter varies among survey locations and specific catchment conditions. For example, food packaging and urban litter tends to be reported in areas close to population centres (O’Callaghan, 1993), derelict recreational and commercial fishing gear is reported near popular fishing locations (Widmer,

2002). However, in remote areas of Australia, debris is largely marine based. On remote sub-Antarctic, temperate and northern Australian shores, derelict commercial fishing debris comprises the greatest proportion of debris by weight or number of items (Edyvane et al., 2004; Kiessling, 2003; Slater, 1991; Woehler, 1990; Slip and Burton, 1992; White, 2003, 2006). On sub-Antarctic and northern shores the marine-based debris is notably derelict fishing nets from foreign sources. Some studies have also shown that the composition and source of debris at a particular location may change throughout the year and over time (Edyvane et al., 2004; Page et al., 2004).

2.3 Origin of harmful marine debris

The origin of debris on Australian beaches is influenced by a number of factors including proximity to urban centres, population of surrounding areas, and vicinity of marine-based activities. Marine debris can originate from either land-based sources or activities at sea, although it is often difficult to determine how debris first entered the marine environment.

2.3.1 Domestic sources and management of harmful marine debris

The Australian coastline is around 36 700km, and approximately 86% of Australia’s total population lives in the coastal zone. The marine environment includes Australia’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ) that generally extends up to 200 nautical miles offshore.

Management of activities that may contribute to domestic sources of marine debris within Australia’s marine and coastal environments is shared between the Australian, state, Northern Territory and local governments. In general, the Australian Government has powers over activities in Commonwealth waters (the area between three nautical miles offshore and the EEZ boundary). The states and the Northern Territory have power to legislate over most activities in coastal waters (up to three nautical miles offshore). Both local governments and the state and Northern Territory governments have responsibility for many activities on land that have the potential to contribute to harmful debris in coastal waters, such as municipal waste and stormwater management.

Given the complexity of governance and management arrangements relevant to activities within Australia’s marine jurisdiction, coordination, communication and consistency between levels of government and between government and non-government groups is critical to the effective implementation of marine debris threat abatement measures.

Land-based sources

Some of the main causes for land-sourced marine debris include littering and inadequate waste management arrangements (Wace, 1994, 1995). Coastal surveys near Australian cities have shown that around 75–80% of shoreline litter items are from land-based sources (O’Callaghan, 1993; Wace, 1994,

1995; Gregory and Ryan, 1997; Haynes, 1997; Clean Up Australia, 2006; Keep Australia Beautiful,

2006). Debris from land-based sources may enter the marine environment via wind, streams and drains from streets, municipal land fills and direct littering of beaches (Keep Australia Beautiful, 1996).

Urban stormwater discharge is also a major pathway for marine debris in Australia (Cunningham and

Wilson, 2003).

Pre-production plastic pellets, commonly known as nurdles, are an example of marine debris originating from land. Nurdles come in a range of sizes from 5mm plastic resin pellets to plastic resin powders of around 200 micrometres. Due to their size they are easily lost during transport and handling and are

too small to be stopped by litter traps, so tend to wash down waterways into the marine environment, where they are mistaken for food and eaten by marine animals. Given the ability of persistent organic pollutants to accumulate in to plastic resin pellets, the harm potential for each pollutant individually becomes significantly greater when they are combined.

Marine sources

In remote areas, marine activities tend to be the primary source of debris recorded. For example, along parts of the northern Australian coastline, between 80 and 99% of all items of debris recorded is likely to originate from marine sources (Sloan et al., 1998; Whiting, 1998; Kiessling 2003), and on Australia’s sub-Antarctic islands and the Great Australian Bight, up to 100% of debris recorded is from marine activities (Slip and Burton, 1991; Edyvane et al., 2004).

On remote northern Australian coasts, derelict fishing gear, primarily from foreign fishing operations, is the most significant category of debris in terms of impact on marine species (Kiessling, 2003; Roeger

et al., 2005). Fishing debris has also been found in very high levels during surveys on remote beaches of southwest Tasmania (Slater, 1991).

Fishing gear may become derelict in two ways — either inadvertently during the course of normal operations or through deliberate disposal (Minton, 2000). Factors contributing to deliberate fishing gear disposal include limitations of solid waste disposal at ports; poor understanding of and compliance with waste disposal regulations and controls; and economic pressures that promote gear conflicts, greater risk taking with gear, expansion of fishing grounds and shifts to more durable gear (Carr and Harris, 1997; Topping et al., 1997). Fishing gear may also be accidentally lost due to storms, entanglements on reefs and rocks, and other mishaps. If all reasonable precautions are taken, such losses are not a breach of domestic or international marine pollution law.

Studies in parts of Australia have found a positive correlation between litter on beaches and numbers of recreational boats (Widmer, 2002), though recreational fishers tend to produce relatively small amounts of waste per person and per vessel in comparison to commercial vessels (National Research Council,

1995). The types of litter most frequently reported as associated with recreational boats are plastic bags, aluminium cans and glass bottles (Widmer, 2002). Recreational fishers are also responsible for the loss

or disposal of lines, lures, and nets (Whiting, 1998; Thompson, 2000; Kiessling and Hamilton, 2001,


Most recreational boaters and fishers operate within three nautical miles (4.8km) of shore and are obliged under law to store all waste for disposal ashore. Actual waste disposal practices at sea are unknown and likely to be variable. As waste generated on board recreational boats is often

indistinguishable from that generated on shore, it is difficult to accurately determine debris originating from recreational vessels.

A large number of commercial ships operate in Australian waters including Australian and foreign flagged vessels in domestic and international trade. Evidence suggests that commercial ships are likely to be responsible for a proportion of waste in Australia’s marine environment. For example, a number of syringes and glass antibiotic bottles thought to be from livestock carriers have been found during surveys on Christmas Island (Environment Australia, 2001a) and Arnhem Land (Alderman et al., 1999; Kiessling and Hamilton, 2001, 2003), and livestock feedbags such as those used in the live cattle trade have also been reported to wash ashore in northern Australia (Leitch, 1997).

Other potential sources of marine debris include recreational leisure boats; coastal barges; surveillance vessels; offshore oil platforms, rigs and supply vessels; passenger cruise ships; and research vessels. Though all are required to conform to national, state, Northern Territory and international waste management requirements, considerable amounts of debris may be generated by these vessel types.

A range of factors must be considered when determining which marine-based sectors contribute to harmful marine debris. Key factors include amounts and types of waste generated, availability and cost of waste reception facilities in ports and marinas, numbers and types of vessels, duration of voyages, and the sophistication of waste management regimes employed by the sector and by individual vessels and crews.

2.3.2 International sources of harmful marine debris in Australian waters

Harmful marine debris is an international issue both in terms of its sources and impacts. For example, the majority of derelict fishing nets washing ashore on Australia’s northern coastline originate from fishing activities beyond Australia’s jurisdiction (Kiessling, 2003; White, 2003, 2006). Preliminary analysis of derelict fishing nets found in the Gulf of Carpentaria suggest that foreign fishing nets from fishing operations outside Australian jurisdiction are likely to comprise the greatest proportion (around 80%)

of all nets washing ashore on beaches there. Foreign nets are causing some of the greatest harm to marine animals, especially marine turtles (Chatto, 1995; Kiessling, 2003; Roeger et al., 2005; White, 2003,

2006). Debris from international shipping and fishing activities has also been found along southern Australian coastlines (Edyvane et al., 2004) including sub-Antarctic islands (Slip et al., 1990; Slip and Burton, 1990, 1992).

A proportion of debris, other than derelict fishing nets, in Australian waters could also have international origins. For example, thick rubber and plastic sheeting from which the soles of handmade thongs are made, believed to have originated from outside Australian waters, washes ashore on many parts of northern Australia, including the beaches at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (Wace, 1995). Numerous other items such as fishing net floats, sorting baskets, crates, buckets, hand reels, light globes, ropes and gloves, which may also be directly attributed to fishing and general shipping activities, are

also found (Sloan et al., 1998; Whiting, 1998; Kiessling, 2003). Given the potential for ocean currents to transport debris long distances, dumping of urban waste in waters neighbouring Australia may

be a source of debris washing ashore on Australian coasts. This highlights the need for regional and international collaboration to tackle harmful debris at its source effectively.

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