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Plastic waste is choking one of Northern Territory’s most pristine areas and culturally significant areas

CDU researchers explore the piles of rubbish that continues to build on Wessel Islands beaches left scattered every wet season.
CDU researchers explore the piles of rubbish that continues to build on Wessel Islands beaches left scattered every wet season.

Wessel Islands Archipelago could have some of the most littered beaches in the Northern Territory with Charles Darwin University (CDU) researchers discovering tons of plastic waste washed ashore.

CDU researchers on a recent visit to the Archipelago’s Marchinbar Island, about 550km east of Darwin, were shocked at the volume of plastics and fishing gear on the beach and in the shallow waters around the islands.

The narrow island is about 55km long and eight kilometres wide at its widest point and is the second largest island in the Archipelago.

CDU research fellow Dr Carol Palmer said it’s impossible to find unpolluted beach not littered with plastics and fishing gear on the island.

“It was on my 2011 visit that I first noticed the plastic waste and later in 2016 when I returned, I noticed that the amount of plastic waste had increased significantly,” Dr Palmer said. 

“Now in 2021, the amount of plastic and fishing gear is just astounding - both on the western side and eastern side of Marchinbar Island of the Wessel Archipelago.”

Dr Palmer said the winds and current around the island contributed to the collection of the litter around the islands.

“I would say that the archipelago is the most littered place in Northern Territory, if not Northern Australia,” she said.

On the last visit in October last year, Dr Palmer said the most surprising change in waste was the number of ghost nets drifting around the island.

These ghost nets are abandoned or lose nets that can stretch for kilometers and cause a significant number of deaths in fish and turtle populations.

Gumurr Marthakal Rangers manage the 1500km area around Wessel Islands since 2016, both the land and the sea as part of the Marthakal Indigenous Protected Area

Gumurr Marthakal Executive Officer and ranger Marcus Lacey has a strong family connection to the islands.

“The waste is worse than it has ever been, and its continuing to get worse after every wet season,” Mr Lacey said.

“You mainly get the westerlies (Western winds) during the wet season, and it brings all the plastic waste from the Timor Sea, then in the dry season you get winds the dump plastics on the eastern side of the islands.”

Mr Lacey said because of the isolation and resource limitations, the rangers did not have the capacity to clean it up. He said it would need a solution at the source.

“You look at the labels and the bottles and you can see that about 80 per cent comes from Asia,” he said.

Dr Palmer said because of the island’s remoteness, it is one of the most expensive areas to do any clean-up work across Australia.

“We need a good and practical on-ground way to manage this problem and good communication,” she said.

“It needs a clean-up as soon as possible, but importantly, ongoing management and engagement with the Traditional Owners, commercial and tourist vessel operators, and boat travelers who anchor across the islands, Australian Border Force (ABF) and the Navy.”

One option being considered is to establish a ranger station on Marchinbar Island so we can ensure it has continuous management through the direction of the traditional owners and by working together looking after an important Archipelago in the Northern Territory.

Mr Lacey said the last time there was a permanent settlement was in 2006 before Tropical Cyclone Monica tore through the island chain destroying all the permanent structures.

“We want a permanent ranger station there.  To give people, and traditional owners a chance to have access to their country, and to care for it,” he said.

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