Toxic tides

An en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter looms for re­mote East Arn­hem Land, in the North­ern Ter­ri­tory, as tonnes of waste wash up on its shores.

Australian Geographic - - Contents - STORY BY MATT GAR­RICK

The pris­tine beaches of Arn­hem Land are lit­tered with plas­tic.

ON A LONE­SOME, seem­ingly inf inite stretch of shore­line more than 100km away from any sig­nif­i­cant out­post, two Abo­rig­i­nal rangers trawl through a pile of marine de­bris. Other than their own foot­prints, the only ob­vi­ous signs of life the Yir­ralka rangers see are a sun-bleached kan­ga­roo skull, crabs, hawks, and the oc­ca­sional pile of buf­falo drop­pings. But at this Yol­ngu-owned area of East Arn­hem Land, on the North­ern Ter­ri­tory edge of the Gulf of Car­pen­taria, some­thing is sig­nif­i­cantly wrong. The beach is far from un­touched. It’s lit­tered with thou­sands of mul­ti­coloured nets, ropes, thongs, wrap­pers and bot­tles.

Some of the rubbish is easy to spot – bar­na­cle-coated fuel drums or buoys, while some re­mains harder to see – tiny shards of bro­ken plas­tic con­tain­ers and lids. It’s all de­struc­tive. At the most re­cent count, Ter­ri­tory re­searchers es­ti­mated up to a tonne of waste had washed up per kilo­me­tre along this re­mote coast­line last year, most of it from In­done­sian wa­ters. It’s an en­vi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter knock­ing, wave af­ter wave, at Aus­tralia’s doorstep.

AS A LIT­TLE BOY, Man­daka ‘Djami’ Marika would wan­der for kilo­me­tres on the white sands of his coun­try on the Gove Peninsula, look­ing for a feed of tur­tle or stingray. It was out here his elders taught him how to rig up a tur­tle spear for hunt­ing, and where he watched the old ladies gather mud mus­sels for tucker.

And now, decades later, Man­daka picks up a plas­tic bot­tle off the same shore­line, lo­cated not more than a few kilo­me­tres from the Yol­ngu com­mu­nity of Yir­rkala, and shakes his head. “When I was grow­ing up we used to walk on this beach,” says Man­daka, a se­nior Rir­ratjingu tra­di­tional owner and the man­ag­ing di­rec­tor of Dhimurru Abo­rig­i­nal Cor­po­ra­tion. “We would en­joy walk­ing because there was noth­ing to worry about; it was all clean,” he says. “This is one of the spots that’s been taken over by rubbish. Plas­tic, plas­tic, plas­tic. There’s so much plas­tic…in the end, plas­tic will take over. Plas­tic in the land, plas­tic in the sea, plas­tic ev­ery­where.”

Nearby In­done­sia is one of the planet’s worst plas­tic pol­luters, sec­ond only to China; it also har­bours the world’s sec­ond most pro­lif ic f ish­ing in­dus­try. As the only area of sea in In­done­sia where trawl­ing is legally per­mit­ted, the Ara­fura Sea con­tains the na­tion’s largest f ish­eries and some of the largest in South-East Asia. The sea is also a known global hotspot for il­le­gal trawl­ing by both In­done­sian and for­eign op­er­a­tors. Thou­sands of boats trawl the

Ara­fura each day, di­rectly ad­ja­cent to one of the most sparsely pop­u­lated cor­ners of the NT.

Dar­win-based marine sci­en­tist Pro­fes­sor Karen Edy­vane, of Charles Dar­win Univer­sity, has been mon­i­tor­ing rates of ocean­based de­bris in the NT for 15 years. She says that with such in­ten­sive fish­ing so close by, “it was only a mat­ter of time be­fore we started see­ing the im­pact on north­ern Aus­tralia”.

“In­done­sia has a pop­u­la­tion of more than 260 mil­lion peo­ple, and it’s one of the most seafood-de­pen­dent na­tions in the world,” she says. “A lot of peo­ple de­pend on ocean re­sources for their food se­cu­rity and also liveli­hood…so we’re look­ing at some in­cred­i­bly heav­ily f ished wa­ters.”

The rubbish, much of it jet­ti­soned from f ish­ing boats, only be­gan ap­pear­ing in force on Arn­hem Land beaches in the late 1990s. But once it started, there was no re­vers­ing the f low. Karen and other re­searchers who have been mon­i­tor­ing the inf lux of rubbish on a stretch of coast at Cape Arn­hem say the vol­ume of de­bris has dou­bled since 2008.

By their stats, along the 3.9km stretch, the rubbish has in­cluded a stag­ger­ing av­er­age of 2075 thongs, 1967 bot­tle caps and 1341 plas­tic bot­tles an­nu­ally. This doesn’t in­clude the hun­dreds of bags, lighters, buoys and tooth­brushes being picked up year af­ter year.

IN­DONE­SIA HAS AL­WAYS FOS­TERED a close and unique re­la­tion­ship with the peo­ple of this far north­ern tip of Aus­tralia, dat­ing back to the early Ma­cas­san traders of the 1700s. But Man­daka be­lieves this mass dump­ing could start to frac­ture the friend­ship. “It’s very sad to see rubbish com­ing in from an­other na­tion,” he says.

With the un­yield­ing rates of plas­tic pro­duc­tion in In­done­sia, and an es­ti­mated 1.29 mil­lion met­ric tonnes of it end­ing up in the sea each year, the risks are in­ten­si­fy­ing. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, erad­i­cat­ing the prob­lem is be­com­ing more and more dif­fi­cult. In the Gove re­gion, two ranger groups – Yir­ralka and Dhimurru – are do­ing their best to clean up the beaches, reg­u­larly drag­ging away ute-loads of junk. But it is a thank­less and costly task. Af­ter each load is re­moved, the tide heaves more garbage onto the shore, par­tic­u­larly dur­ing the dry sea­son when south-east­erly trade winds blow.

“It’s on­go­ing – we’ve been do­ing it for 12 years and it’s get­ting worse,” says Yir­ralka ranger man­ager Dave Preece. “It’s la­bo­ri­ous work; it takes up a lot of our time and re­sources, but it is a high pri­or­ity to do it,” he adds. “One of the most diff icult things is the re­al­i­sa­tion that there’s a whole ocean out there and we’re only clean­ing up what washes up on the beaches.”

The rangers are de­ter­mined to see real ac­tion taken. “This has got to stop,” Man­daka says. “We need to send the mes­sage out there to the na­tion nearby who is throw­ing the rubbish, and we need to say, ‘Lis­ten mate, come with us. Pick up your own rubbish. Don’t put it in our back­yard.’”

Although off icials from both In­done­sia and Aus­tralia are promis­ing to put their best feet for­ward to solve this rubbish cri­sis, it’s a war that looks set to con­tinue on Ter­ri­tory shores for a lot longer yet.

WITH VI­SION LIKE a sea hawk’s, se­nior Yir­ralka ranger Banul Mun­yarryun spots some­thing tan­gled in a f ish­ing net splayed on the beach. He digs into the heap and pulls out the body of a rare hawks­bill tur­tle. “We f ind nearly 1000 nets every year,” Banul says. “Some ves­sels, their

“This has got to stop. We need to send the mes­sage, ‘Pick up your own rubbish.’”

net tan­gles up and they cut it, and the net f loats to the land. Some­times a tur­tle gets caught in it and never sur­vives.”

As well as tur­tles – green, olive ri­d­ley, f lat­back and hawks­bill – Banul has seen dol­phins and dugongs killed by these ghost nets. The vast ma­jor­ity of such nets orig­i­nate from for­eign f ish­ing boats, says Dave Preece, hav­ing drifted in from out­side Aus­tralian sea bor­ders.

Ac­cord­ing to Pro­fes­sor Ti­mothy Townsend of the Univer­sity of Florida, in the USA, some 10,000 tur­tles have been “trapped by derelict nets in the Gulf of Car­pen­taria re­gion alone”. CSIRO mod­el­ling sug­gests this fig­ure could be even higher. Based on re­search and data col­lected by Indigenous rangers and Karen’s team, CSIRO es­ti­mates up to 15,000 tur­tles were caught and killed by ghost nets between 2005 and 2009. By now this fig­ure will have risen sub­stan­tially.

Fish­er­man Tony Pearse, who used to co-own Ara­fura Sea Char­ters, says he’s pulled ghost nets up to 14km long out of East Arn­hem wa­ters. But he be­lieves ghost nets are just the vis­i­ble edge of the is­sue, with tiny plas­tics be­com­ing even more prob­lem­atic. “The worst thing I think is the tur­tles eat any small stuff that f loats,” Tony says. “It prob­a­bly does more dam­age than the nets.”

Re­search into ex­actly how much plas­tic the East Arn­hem re­gion’s marine fauna has been swal­low­ing re­mains scarce, but Karen an­tic­i­pates fu­ture stud­ies will pro­duce con­fronting re­sults. “I’m ab­so­lutely sure they will re­veal that we will be record­ing sim­i­lar rates of in­ges­tion that they’ve recorded else­where around the world – sadly, I ex­pect some­where between 60 and 80 per cent of wildlife will have in­gested plas­tic,” she says.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2015 study headed by Qa­mar Schuyler of the CSIRO, as many as half of sea tur­tles world­wide have swal­lowed marine de­bris. And it’s hav­ing a cat­a­strophic ef­fect on the an­i­mals. Yir­ralka ranger Aaron Short­house tells of the grow­ing oc­cur­rence of ‘f loaters’ – tur­tles that can no longer dive to the sea f loor. The plas­tic they in­gest can trig­ger a gaseous build-up due to block­ages in their stom­achs and di­ges­tive tracts, which causes the an­i­mals to stay buoyed on the sur­face. “I was out fish­ing in a boat the other day and we saw three f loat­ing tur­tles,” he says. “We’re see­ing this more of­ten now – they’re eat­ing the plas­tic, it gets into their stom­ach and they can’t dive to feed. They’re on the sur­face, they can’t feed and they starve.”

It’s not just the tur­tles whose health is at risk. Many Yol­ngu res­i­dents of the East Arn­hem home­lands still live the tra­di­tional way: hunt­ing for bush tucker in the sea with spears and cook­ing their seafood on open f ires. Yir­ralka rangers fear the tidal inf lux of rubbish could even­tu­ally pose a risk to their health. “We do eat tur­tles,” Banul says. “If some­thing goes wrong with the tur­tles…we might get sick.”

Fel­low Yir­ralka ranger Dju­ram­bil Mu­nung­gurr com­pares the po­ten­tial en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of plas­tic in their wa­ters with when min­ing first be­gan in the re­gion in the 1960s. “Our f ish were pol­luted and peo­ple started to get sick,” she says. “That’s how it hap­pens.”

“I ex­pect some­where between 60 and 80 per cent of wildlife will have in­gested plas­tic.”

While the jury re­mains out on ex­actly how harm­ful marine mi­croplas­tics might be for hu­mans, Karen says there’s un­doubt­edly a health risk. “If they’re eat­ing or­gans, par­tic­u­larly or­gans like the liver, plas­tics con­tain tox­ins [and could prove to be harm­ful],” she says.

THE EX­TENT OF THE rubbish on­slaught is such that Gove rangers say they can no longer deal with it us­ing the re­sources they have. Even with a small army of com­mu­nity vol­un­teers at their dis­posal, and even if they had ac­cess to a f lotilla of trac­tors, doz­ers and other machin­ery, the is­sue wouldn’t budge. The rubbish would con­tinue to pile up in lay­ers on the sand.

Man­daka is call­ing on the Aus­tralian and In­done­sian gov­ern­ments to of­fer more sup­port. The Com­mon­wealth pledges it is en­gag­ing with In­done­sia on the is­sue. As­sis­tant Min­is­ter for the En­vi­ron­ment Melissa Price says her depart­ment “takes the prob­lem of plas­tic waste and its im­pact on the en­vi­ron­ment and wildlife se­ri­ously” and is work­ing to ad­dress ocean pol­lu­tion. “Through a co-f inanc­ing agree­ment…Aus­tralia, In­done­sia, Ti­mor Leste and Pa­pua New Guinea are work­ing to­gether to sup­port the Ara­fura and Ti­mor Seas Ecosys­tems Ac­tion pro­gram over the next five years [2017–21], which in­cludes re­duc­ing land-based and marine sources of pol­lu­tion,” she adds.

Man­daka’s mes­sage to In­done­sia is firm: he wants the na­tion to take heed of the prob­lem and trig­ger se­ri­ous ac­tion. “Send peo­ple to come and help us clean up your rubbish,” he says.

In­done­sian con­sul Dicky So­er­janatami­hardja says his na­tion has heard the con­cerns of tra­di­tional own­ers, and the gov­ern­ment is en­deav­our­ing to seek so­lu­tions. “We are com­mit­ted to in­ter­na­tional co­op­er­a­tions in f ight­ing plas­tic waste,” he says.

“We are re­struc­tur­ing our na­tional pro­gram to ad­dress the prob­lem. We also spend at least US$1 bil­lion on the is­sue.”

In­done­sia is bat­tling tides of marine waste on the home front as well. “We have also the same prob­lem that Aus­tralia has in East Arn­hem – some­times if the wind comes from South-East Asia to In­done­sia, we have marine de­bris com­ing from Viet­nam, from Thai­land,” he says. “We do un­der­stand, not just for In­done­sia or for Aus­tralia, but it is the world’s prob­lem.”

Dicky ex­plains he would wel­come on­go­ing dialogue with the lo­cal elders, say­ing, “It would be lovely if I can meet the East Arn­hem off icials and the lead­ers of the tra­di­tional landown­ers to dis­cuss the prob­lem – at least then I can see by my­self the prob­lem, and we can dis­cuss fur­ther, and we can give some rec­om­men­da­tions to our cen­tral gov­ern­ment and re­gional gov­ern­ment to do more ac­tion on prevent­ing such a prob­lem in the fu­ture.”

Signs ap­pear to be op­ti­mistic but there’s a long way to go. Karen says un­less some­thing changes, and fast, plas­tic could be here to stay. “This is the ma­te­rial that was made to last for­ever, and I have no doubt we’re go­ing to see pro­found im­pacts on north­ern Aus­tralia’s ecosys­tems,” she says.

Ac­cord­ing to Karen, gov­ern­ments need to bet­ter en­gage with In­done­sia’s f ish­ing and man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries if any proper so­lu­tion is to be reached. “En­cour­ag­ing In­done­sia to re­duce its plas­tic pro­duc­tion and plas­tic con­sump­tion and go for more biodegrad­able al­ter­na­tives, par­tic­u­larly for pack­ag­ing like wa­ter bot­tles – the same things we’re push­ing in Aus­tralia – need to be sup­ported in In­done­sia as well,” she says.

Un­til then, the tide will ebb between the two neigh­bours as it al­ways has, bring­ing with it a strange and po­tent prob­lem for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions to try to stom­ach.

This hel­met, plas­tered with Ba­li­nese stick­ers, washed up on the shore at Bi­rany Bi­rany.

Yir­ralka rangers Dju­ram­bil Mu­nung­gurr (at left), Banul Mun­yarryun and Aaron Short­house as­sess a beach for marine de­bris in re­mote East Arn­hem Land.

Yir­ralka ranger Banul Mun­yarryun pulls a dead hawks­bill tur­tle from a tan­gle of dis­carded ghost net.

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