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