A turtle is freed from marine debris on a beach by a man.

Marine debris have a direct impact on threatened and endangered marine species.

Tackling marine debris

CSIRO is leading a three-year, world-leading survey of marine debris in Australian waters to help protect ecosystems and wildlife.

  • 4 March 2012 | Updated 12 September 2014


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Marine debris is what we call the waste that makes its way into our oceans, lakes and rivers. It is a major global threat to marine biodiversity.

By effectively ‘clogging up’ our oceans and water ways, marine debris has a direct impact on fish, amphibians, invertebrates, birds, reptiles, and mammals – including threatened and endangered marine species. And as the rate of rubbish in the ocean grows exponentially, this impact continues to increase.

In 2011 CSIRO partnered with Earthwatch to deliver the largest, most comprehensive marine debris research survey - ever. The three year project is funded by Shell.

The marine debris research survey aims to identify and understand the threat marine debris poses to our wildlife and ecosystems by mapping out where – and how – it is accumulating along Australian coastlines.

CSIRO researchers have visited more than 170 sites around Australia, completing over 575 transects (or 'straigh line surveys'), stopping at 100 kilometre intervals along the Australian coast, investigating:

A research team led by Dr Denise Hardesty of the CSIRO Wealth from Oceans Flagship is investigating the threat posed by marine debris to Australian wildlife and ecosystems.

  • sources, distribution, and ultimate fate of marine debris
  • the effectiveness of government policies and community action in reducing plastic pollution
  • exposure of marine wildlife to debris
  • the effects of ingestion and entanglement on marine wildlife populations.

The data collected are compiled in a national Marine Debris Database, designed to assist governments and industry in the formulation of waste management policies and practices intended to protect marine ecosystems.

This database is due to be published in mid 2014. 

The project is part of TeachWild, a three-year marine debris research and education program, developed by EarthWatch Australia in partnership with CSIRO and Shell.

Show Transcript

[Images of marine life]

Our oceans are home to some pretty amazing animals.

[Image changes to Dr Denise Hardesty holding plastic bottle and bottle cap]

But things like this are making the oceans unsafe for the animals that live there.

Hi, I’m Dr Denise from CSIRO and I’m researching different ways to keep our ocean dwelling friends safe from marine debris.

[Image changes to plastic can and someone picking it up]

Marine debris is what we call all the rubbish that makes its way into our oceans.

[Image changes to different types of plastic]

It includes everything from small bits of plastic and bottle cap, lid, cans and all that sort of thing to fishing gear. Even the tiniest piece of plastic can cause problems for animals like sea birds and turtles.

[Image shows a turtle]

They can mistake bits of plastic for lunch or get themselves entangled in old fishing gear.

[Image changes to Dr Denise Hardesty walking along the beach]

My research has lots of different parts in it. We just completed surveys approximately every 100 km around the entire continent. It’s a really big job and it’s been lots of fun.

[Image changes to Dr Denise Hardesty surveying plastic]

One thing that we found is that we estimated more than 6 pieces of rubbish along our coastline for every single person in Australia. Now we’re adding that information to surveys we’ve carried out at sea to identify some of those hotspots. Where is the marine debris coming from? What is it associated with because we really want to solve these issues.

[Image changes to different types of plastic on the beach]

[Image changes to Dr Denise Hardesty]

As part of the marine debris project we are trying to understand the impact of marine debris on sea birds and to do that we go out to colonies like this and survey the ground. Sea birds mistake plastic as food and they’ll often bring it back to their young and feed it to them.

[Image changes to a researcher surveying the ground]

So what we do is look around the ground at those colonies and anything we find, any bits of plastic, we will bring it back into the lab where we will analyse it there.

Learn more about CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship.

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