What is marine debris?
Marine debris (or marine litter) is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment (UN Environment Program, 2009).
|Common items of marine debris include
Marine debris is harmful to marine life including to protected species of birds, sharks, turtles and marine mammals. Marine debris may cause injury or death through drowning, injury through entanglement and internal injuries, or starvation following ingestion.
Turtles, marine mammals and sea birds can be severely injured or die from entanglement in marine debris.
Turtles, marine mammals and sea birds can be severely injured or die from entanglement in marine debris, causing restricted mobility, starvation, infection, amputation, drowning and smothering.
Seabirds entangled in fishing lines, fragments of fishing nets, plastic packing straps or other marine debris may lose their ability to move quickly through the water, reducing their ability to catch prey and avoid predators; or they may suffer constricted circulation, leading to asphyxiation and death.
Fishing line debris, nets and ropes cut into the skin of marine mammals or turtles, leading to infection or the amputation of flippers, tails or flukes.
Marine species can confuse plastics including bags, rubber, balloons and confectionery wrappers with prey and swallow them. This debris can cause a blockage in the digestive system.
Turtles are known to eat plastic bags, confusing them with jellyfish, their common prey.
Sea birds eat polystyrene balls and plastic buoys, confusing them with fish eggs and crustaceans, and whales are also known to eat plastic debris.
What is Australia doing?
Key threatening process
'Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris' has been listed as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).
- EPBC Act Key threatening process - Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris
Threat abatement plan
In June 2009, the Australian Government made the Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Life (the Plan) under the EPBC Act following consultation with stakeholders including industry, conservation groups, state, territory and local governments.
The Plan was developed in response to the Natural Resource Management (NRM) Ministerial Council's A National Approach to Addressing Marine Biodiversity Decline, which recognises marine pollution as a significant threat to the health of listed species.
It provides a framework with timeframes and actions to ensure a coordinated national approach on the issues, and will:
- review existing policies, codes of practice, conventions and activities to determine their effectiveness
- coordinate abatement strategies identified in separate marine animal recovery plans, such as the Marine Turtle Recovery Plan and the Grey Nurse Recovery Plan; and
- examine the effectiveness of joint agreements with other nations to address the issues of marine debris and its impact on wildlife, and assess the need for new ones.
The Threat Abatement Plan for the impacts of marine debris on the vertebrate wildlife of Australia's coasts and oceans incorporates actions needed to abate the listed key threatening process, particularly actions to develop understanding about microplastic impacts and the potential role of new technologies in waste management. The actions are intended to be feasible, effective and efficient, as required by the EPBC Act. The plan binds the Commonwealth and its agencies to respond to the impact of marine debris on vertebrate marine life, and identifies the research, management and other actions needed to reduce the impacts of marine debris on affected species.
- Threat Abatement Plan for the impacts of marine debris on the vertebrate wildlife of Australia’s coasts and oceans (2018)
Marine debris resulting from the legal disposal of garbage at sea is excluded from the key threatening process. Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, overboard disposal of food, paper, glass, metal and crockery (but not plastics) is permitted from vessels more than 12 nautical miles from land. For more information, see the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's MARPOL page.
Great Barrier Reef
The Reef 2050 Plan was released by the Australian and Queensland governments in March 2015 and is the overarching framework for protecting and managing the Reef. It includes actions to protect the marine environment and wildlife from harmful material and debris. As part of this plan and during the International Year of the Reef 2018, the Australian Government is investing half a billion dollars in the health and resilience of the Reef. This includes funds allocated towards increasing community engagement in Reef protection through activities such as coastal clean-up days and awareness raising activities.
National waste policy
The Plan complements the Government's National Waste Policy and existing activities to mitigate the impacts of marine debris - such as State/Federal projects through the Standing Council on Environment and Water that address litter at its source, by reducing waste, increasing recycling and encouraging industry to take responsibility for their products.
The Australian Packaging Covenant is an example of a successful product stewardship scheme where governments and industry have worked together to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging.
Individual state and territory governments are also taking specific actions to address plastic waste and litter.
The Plan includes a number of regional and international actions that the Government is pursuing beyond our borders.
The Australian Government has an ongoing, active regional engagement on marine debris and litter including through the Coral Triangle Initiative, the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) and the Marine Resources Conservation Working Group of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).
As a part of this, the Government contributes to regional efforts to improve knowledge, prevention and responses to marine debris. This has included leading an APEC project Understanding the Economic Benefits and Costs of Controlling Marine Debris in the APEC Region.
Pacific Ocean Litter Project
The Australian Government is investing $16 million (2019-2027) in the Pacific Ocean Litter Project (POLP). In partnership the Secretariat of the Pacific Regional Environment Programme (SPREP), the project is assisting Pacific island countries to reduce marine litter in the coastal environments of the Pacific.
The POLP focuses on actions to refuse, reduce and replace single-use plastics by working with Pacific island countries to:
- develop and adopt legislation, policies and practical strategies to reduce single-use plastics
- increase consumer awareness and encourage use of alternatives to
- single-use plastics
- target measures to reduce single-use plastics by sectors and businesses
- identify and support sustainable alternative products.
The Government maintains an active presence and participation in fora including the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP coordinates the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities and also recently completed a survey of international marine debris impacts and activities, Marine Litter: A Global Challenge (UNEP, April 2009).
How can I get involved?
There are lots of ways you can make a contribution to reducing marine debris.
- ensure that when you enjoy the marine environment you responsibly dispose of your rubbish to stop it becoming marine debris - use available facilities and be aware of best practice guidelines
- participate in clean up activities
- contribute to our collective understanding of this issue by assisting organisations undertaking activities such as coastal clean ups and surveys that record marine debris, and
- consume wisely and help to reduce demand for materials that are possible sources of marine debris.
Where can I find out more?
Below is a range of publications and websites available on marine debris, with material ranging from local to national, regional and international. While not an exhaustive list, the links below provide a starting point to find out more. Your local government and community websites may be another useful source of information on local activities and events.
- Dhimurru turtle entanglement report - Research on the impact of marine debris on marine turtle survival and behaviour: North east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory, Australia - Dhimurru turtle entanglement report - April 2009
- Finding solutions: Derelict Fishing Gear and Other Marine Debris in Northern Australia - 2003
- Litter Management In Australia, Environment Protection and Heritage Council, 2008
- A national approach to biodiversity decline - Report to the Natural Resource Management Ministerial Council - July 2005
- Understanding the types, sources and at-sea distribution of marine debris in Australian waters - 2011
- Abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (UNEP)
- Marine Litter: A Global Challenge (UNEP)
- The Net Kit (WWF)
- CSIRO Marine Debris
- Australian Maritime Safety Authority
- Marine Debris in the Great Barrier Reef
- Marine pollution in the Australian Antarctic Territory
- Clean Up Australia
- Keep Australia Beautiful
- Ghost Nets Initiative
- Project AWARE Marine Debris Page
- Port Waste Reception Facilities
- Tangaroa Blue Foundation
- WWF Australia