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Senate adjournment speech on the 'scourge of marine plastics'

Speeches in Parliament
Peter Whish-Wilson 9 Sep 2015

Senator WHISH-WILSON (Tasmania) (20:16):  Our ocean is turning into a plastic soup and we need to do something about it. I rise tonight to talk about the scourge of marine plastics and about what the Senate can do to start to help to fix this. As an island nation, Australia is responsible for a massive area of ocean. Our Exclusive Economic Zone covers some eight million square kilometres of ocean, not just around the mainland of Australia and Tasmania but around Cocos and Christmas Island, Macquarie Island, Heard Island, Norfolk Island and Lord Howe Island. The total area of ocean we are responsible for is roughly the same as our total area of land, yet we spend so little time thinking about it or acting to manage and conserve these life-sustaining environments.

Australia's oceans are under pressure from global threats, not just climate change, not just ocean acidification, not just overfishing. Our life-sustaining oceans are now clearly under massive threat from marine plastic debris— rubbish, trash, waste, litter—all combining to destroy our oceans. Marine plastic debris is now recognised globally as a significant threat to biodiversity and the ecological functions of our oceans. It is officially recognised as a 'threatening process' under our own EPBC laws here in Australia. A threat abatement plan was put in place in May 2009. A statutory review of the success of this plan was due five years later, in May 2014. However, this review was not completed until 28 June this year, and it does not go far enough. It does show that we are not making anywhere near enough progress in addressing the problem. We are actually waiting for a direction from the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, about when he will be publishing a new draft for the public to comment on, and I am hoping our Senate inquiry into marine plastics will review this.

Marine debris comes from lots of sources—from refuse thrown overboard by ships, from fishing lines and nets discarded by professional and recreational fisherman and from litter dropped in the streets that washes down the drain and into the sea. Once it enters the ocean it is there, for all intents and purposes, forever. The big pieces of debris can cause choking or entanglements for a range of our amazing marine life. Green turtles, olive ridley turtles, loggerhead turtles, flatback turtles, the critically endangered hawksbill turtle and the giant leatherback turtle are all heavily impacted by large plastic debris. They can get tangled up in ropes or fishing nets and are particularly impacted by ghost nets emanating from the Indonesian fishermen to our north. They can ingest plastic bags, confusing them with jellyfish. Think about it. How is a turtle swimming in the ocean supposed to tell a plastic bag apart from a jellyfish? They are also known to ingest plastic wrappers, balloons and items of hard plastic. These plastic items prevent food from passing through their digestive tracts, causing the food to rot and release gases which cannot escape, so the turtle floats to the surface and eventually dies of starvation.

We are all aware that whales can get tangled up in ropes and nets, and ingestion of plastic by whales is also a serious problem. Just last month it was widely reported that an endangered southern right whale surfaced near some fishermen in Sydney's Middle Harbour. The whale was in distress, with plastic bags and fishing line caught in its mouth. The fishermen were fortunate enough to be able to remove the plastic from the whale's mouth. One of the men, Ron Kovacs, managed to film the encounter and also help the whale. He said: 'He had a big scar on his back, and some fishing line and two plastic bags on his head.' It may have been a 'she', but this is what he said. 'He kept popping his head up so you could reach out and remove the garbage.' He later came up to the trailer boat and presented his head as they removed the bag and then the fishing line. 'It was as if he pestered us until we took it off.' That southern right whale was fortunate to get a helping hand; while the Bryde's whale found beached in Cairns in 2008 was less fortunate. This eight-metre-long relative of the humpback and blue whale died upon beaching itself. When an autopsy was carried out, it was found to have hundreds of plastic bags in its stomach. The pygmy southern right whale found washed up on Maria Island in Tasmania was found to have ingested a chainsaw file cover and a plastic cap from a 20-litre drum. In January this year a Risso's dolphin was not able to be revived after it washed up on North Curl Curl Beach in Sydney. It was found to have died because it had ingested a grey plastic supermarket bag.

It is not just whales and turtles that are impacted by marine debris. In 1960, plastic was found in just five per cent of seabird autopsies. In 2010 it was found in 80 per cent of all dead seabirds that received autopsies. A recent report from CSIRO scientists has predicted that, in 2050, marine plastic will affect 99 per cent of the world's seabirds. These scientists found in their current study that the highest number of endangered seabirds are found off the east coast of my state of Tasmania. They found that some birds had swallowed enough plastic to make up eight per cent of their entire body weight. For someone like me, that means having more than five kilograms of plastic in my stomach.

On subtropical and supposedly pristine Lord Howe Island, the marine plastic impacts on seabirds are becoming increasingly dire.

One dead flesh-footed shearwater was found to have 175 pieces of plastic—175 pieces, including bottle tops, balloon ties and a doll's arm—in its stomach. As the birds die and decompose, this litter they have eaten is beginning to cover the forest floor where the birds nest. What makes this worse is that adults are feeding the plastic to their chicks and it is reducing the breeding success rates of some of Australia's most endangered bird life.

What I have discussed so far is the impact of the larger pieces of plastic. But what happens when these plastics keep breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic? Well, unfortunately, these microplastic particles enter the food chain. Microplastics get ingested by plankton. Microplastics get ingested by small fish. And these creatures get eaten by larger creatures and the problem escalates. These microplastics are damaging in their own right, but they also lead to the bioaccumulation of chemicals like heavy metals. So if you eat fish from the ocean now, you are eating microplastics. We do not yet fully understand the human health impact of this. We do not yet understand the ecological impact of this. What we do know is: the impact is global in scale and is getting worse.

Australia cannot isolate itself from this problem. We are impacting on our oceans, as are all nations. Our neighbours are impacting on our oceans. The plastics in the water around Perth and Sydney and Brisbane, studies have shown, are likely to be from those towns, but the plastics washing up on the remote and supposedly pristine beaches in World-Heritage-listed South-West Tasmania, where Senator Urquhart and I are from, are just as likely to come from Indonesia or South Africa, or to be rubbish jettisoned from a cargo ship.

Australia needs to find not just local solutions to the scourge of marine plastics; we need to work with others in our region to find regional and global solutions. We have some excellent work underway with the Ghost Nets Program led by Indigenous groups to our north that you may be familiar with, Madam Acting Deputy President Peris, and scientists in places like CSIRO, the Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies and the Sydney Institute of Marine Science are doing groundbreaking global research on this problem.

But we have to do more. We have had some leadership in Tasmania with a plastic bag ban. We have seen this similarly in the Northern Territory and in South Australia, but I understand that the Northern Territory ban is currently under pressure. And we are seeing Queensland and New South Wales take tentative steps towards implementing a container deposit scheme, a scheme that has been successful in reducing litter in South Australia.

I want this Senate inquiry to put all the evidence on the table about marine plastics. I want to hear from Australian and global experts on this biggest of problems, and on where we can start to clean up our act. I want some clear recommendations about what we can do here and abroad to address it.

Our oceans are under too much stress, from climate change, overfishing and now marine plastics. It is worth highlighting that in the Pacific there have now been identified five gyres, called the great garbage patches of the world, which are essentially areas thousands of kilometres across that are floating oceanic dumps of marine debris, especially plastic.

The ocean is the womb of the earth, and we need to do so much more to protect it. I am very much looking forward to working with other passionate stakeholders—many of whom, I am hoping, will make submissions to the Senate inquiry, which closes very soon—through the inquiry process and sharing in that passion to actually enact some change and make a difference. And I am very glad that the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee has accepted the recommendation for an inquiry into marine plastics. From what I am aware, it is the first official government inquiry anywhere into what is actually the biggest marine problem in our oceans—the biggest marine problem. We have to start somewhere. Sometimes it almost seems so big that you do not know where to start, but I am actually very excited; I expect that we will get some good evidence and will be able to have a real crack at this.

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