SEPTEMBER is Debris Month of Action, with this year campaigners drawing particular attention to two huge threats, plastics and benthic litter, to our water environments.
The month is an initiative of the PADI AWARE Foundation, a publicly funded not-for-profit global charity whose mission is to drive local action for global ocean conservation.
Operations coordinator for the Asia-Pacific Ian Amos encourages people to avoid utilising single-use plastics to stop polluting our waterways.
He also sounded the alarm on the broader scale of the marine rubbish problem.
“The issue is very bad and huge: out of sight and out of mind seems to be the case,” Mr Amos said.
“While governments and citizens are working on the issue, more needs to be done, and rapidly.
“Better waste management, better education on the issues and also being mindful of what we purchase and why.”
To explain just how bad the problem of ocean contamination has become, Mr Amos pointed to some findings of PADI AWARE’s Dive Against Debris program.
The project is notable for being entirely crowd-sourced from PADI-certified divers turned citizen scientists.
More than 86,000 divers have taken part in 120 countries since the project began in 2011, reporting between them over 1.8 million pieces of rubbish.
“Around 70 per cent of all garbage and over 90 per cent of all plastics entering the ocean sinks to the seafloor,” Mr Amos said.
According to marine debris campaign coordinator at Sea Shepherd Australia, Alison Hill, Australia produces 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste annually, which works out to 100 kilograms per person, per year.
“Around 130,000 tonnes of the plastic Australians consume leaks into the environment, and this is having serious impacts to many at-risk species such as marine turtles, seabirds and cetaceans as well as devastating marine environments,” Ms Hill said.
“By 2050, it is predicted that the amount of plastic in our oceans will outweigh fish.”
The scale of the plastic problem is one reason why Mr Amos and his colleagues are running a PADI AWARE Week from 18-26 September, in the hope of organising as many Dives Against Debris as possible around Australia and the globe.
With the goal of saving the oceans not only from plastics but also from global warming and depletion of fish stocks.
“I’m concerned about ocean temperatures rising, over-fishing and the knock-on effects this has,” Mr Amos said.
“Rising sea levels are an issue, especially in the Pacific.
“Some habitats are being lost, so the protection they afforded the islands is also being lost and so storms and typhoons have a far worse impact than they would have had previously.”
Ms Hill from Sea Shepherd, a charity which along with rubbish also focuses on illegal fishing and protects sharks as part of its push for healthy oceans, said her group also harnesses the power of citizen science.
For example, the way crew members and volunteers document and audit every piece of waste they pick up in their beach clean-ups.
A recent Sea Shepherd campaign on Christmas Island saw crew members clear 975 kilograms in a single day.
“We hope this data inspires change for the adoption of more environmentally-responsible behaviours and a reduction in littering, pollution and waste,” Ms Hill said.
Project officer at OceanWatch Australia, Siobhan Threlfall, said her organisation’s message this month is that everyone can play a part in cleaning up our water environments.
“Whether you’re in lockdown or not you can start making changes this month to help solve our marine debris crisis,” Ms Threlfall said.
“Anything from refusing single-use plastics, repurposing items, taking up plogging [jogging and picking up rubbish], bringing awareness to the issue… be it big or small any action makes a difference.”
Ms Threlfall explained that OceanWatch is currently investigating pollution in estuaries and specifically, the scarcely-researched benthic litter that falls to the bottom of these bodies of water.
“This subset of litter is not as well understood as most clean-up/litter prevention work usually focuses on floating or shoreline litter,” Ms Threlfall said.
The technology OceanWatch is deploying on the project, which includes remotely-operated vehicles and live camera feeds, is crucial given the huge threat to our waterways.
“[Debris is] one of the biggest issues facing the marine environment today,” she said.
“We’ve had positive steps recently from the federal and state governments, with commitments being made that should help improve the issue of marine debris which have been great to see, for example, the National Plastic Plan and the NSW Plastics Action Plan.
“But everyone has a role to play in solving… the issue.
“If everyone takes small steps today it will make a big difference for the future of our oceans.”
Ms Threlfall acknowledged it is easy to get discouraged by the sheer number and complexity of the threats our oceans are facing, which include not only the waste that originates on land but also the nets and other equipment lost by fishing operations at sea.
However, she prefers to emphasise the scale of the work already being done to minimise the damage.
OceanWatch is making progress with its habitat restoration projects, which include the rehabilitation of shellfish reefs and urchin barrens particularly on the NSW South Coast.
Another success is the organisation’s Tide to Tip clean-up campaign, which the group is now organising for 2022.
These clean-up events, organised nationwide in concert with the oyster industry, have already seen 495 volunteers remove 22,550 kilograms of debris from estuaries in NSW and Queensland in 2020 and 2021.
Sea Shepherd’s Ms Hill also emphasised the importance of action in the face of the marine debris problem and celebrated the enthusiasm and passion for the ocean anti-debris volunteers show.
She invited people to join the beach clean-ups the group is organising around Australia on Facebook all throughout Debris Month.