Marine debris can be separated into floating debris, seafloor debris and shoreline debris.

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Marine Debris Information

The Whitsunday Region is facing an extremely high risk from the negative consequences of marine debris as the islands of the Whitsundays protrude from the Queensland coastline and have many bays and beaches that are open to the south-east trade winds, resulting in the region acting as a natural collection point for any marine debris that is introduced into coastal waters further south. Combine this with the high occurrence of marine-based activities in the area, careless throw-away behaviours and the lack of adequate waste control measures within urban infrastructure along the QLD coastline, and the Whitsunday Islands have become inundated with marine debris.

This is a serious problem because marine debris has a wide variety of negative impacts for humans, wildlife, sensitive aquatic habitats and the economic sustainability of coastal communities.

The consequences of marine debris are particularly disturbing for the Whitsunday Region, because the whole area is part of the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park, with the islands being situated at the southern entry point to the Great Barrier Reef. Consequently, any marine debris within the Whitsunday Region has the potential to drift further north and negatively impact this World Heritage Area. In addition, most of the Whitsunday islands are either entire, or at least partial, National Park areas. Protecting this region from marine debris is therefore of the highest importance.

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Marine debris is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material that is washed, blown or disposed of into the marine or coastal environment, with the most common and abundant types of marine litter including: 

  • Food and beverage-related wastes - bottles, cans, lids, food wrappers and containers, as well as disposable cups, plates, straws and utensils
  • Fishing-related debris - fish/lobster traps, crab pots, bait boxes, fishing lines, lures, nets and floats
  • Household items - clothing, furniture, appliances, light bulbs and computers
  • Manufacturing and transportation-related wastes - resin pellets, barrels, drums, shipping pallets, plastic sheets and strapping bands
  • Sewage and sanitary-related debris - tampons and condoms
  • Smoking-related wastes - cigarette filters, packaging and disposable lighters

It has been estimated that approximately 6.4 million tons of this marine litter ends up in the world’s oceans and seas each year, with further estimations suggesting that over 13,000 pieces of plastic litter are floating within every square kilometre of ocean. In addition, most marine debris has a very slow rate of decomposition, which leads to a gradual, but significant accumulation in the coastal and marine environment.

Marine debris may remain near where it entered the marine environment, however it can also be transported over long distances by the ocean currents and winds. Marine debris is consequently an important issue requiring global attention.

It has been suggested that up to 80% of marine debris originates from land-based sources, with the remainder being a result of sea-based activities.

The major land-based sources of marine litter include waste from dumpsites that are located on the coast or banks of rivers; rivers and floodwaters; industrial outfalls; discharge from storm water drains; untreated municipal sewerage; littering of beaches and coastal picnic and recreation areas; tourism and recreational use of the coasts; fishing industry activities; ship-breaking yards; and natural storm-related events.

While the major sea-based sources of marine litter include shipping (merchant, public transport, pleasure, naval and research vessels) and fishing (vessels, angling and fish farming) activities; offshore mining and extraction (vessels, and oil and gas platforms); legal and illegal dumping at sea; abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear; and natural disasters. Consequently, efforts to reduce or prevent the introduction and accumulation of marine debris in the marine and coastal environment need to focus on coastal communities and across all sectors of society to change the attitudes and ultimately the behaviours of individuals.

These efforts are highly important, because marine debris has a wide variety of negative impacts for humans, wildlife, sensitive aquatic habitats and the economic sustainability of coastal communities.

The debris is responsible for causing injury and fatality to marine life through entanglement or ingestion, as well as smothering the seabed and creating disturbances to benthic communities. In addition, marine litter becomes an economic, health and aesthetic problem, being responsible for large economic costs and losses to communities through reduced tourism due to unattractive and potentially hazardous coastlines, declining water quality, a reduction in the abundance of economically important species and vessel damage. Marine litter is also increasingly believed to be a source of an accumulation of toxic substances in the marine environment, and environmental changes due to the transfer and introduction of invasive species. It is therefore not surprising that marine debris has been listed as a key threatening process under the Australian Government’s Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

Marine debris removed from the
Whitsunday islands since July 2009
= 171,316 kilograms