Marine debris

What is marine debris?

Marine debris (or marine litter) is defined as any persistent, manufactured or processed solid material discarded, disposed of or abandoned in the marine and coastal environment (UN Environment Program, 2009).

Common items of marine debris include
Plastic bottles Fishing nets Food packaging
Crates Cigarette butts Gloves
Buckets Rope Fishing gear
Packing materials Light globes Plastic bags

How does marine debris affect threatened species?

Marine debris is harmful to marine life including to protected species of birds, sharks, turtles and marine mammals. Marine debris may cause injury or death through drowning, injury through entanglement and internal injuries, or starvation following ingestion.


DEWHADEWHAVance Wallin, Carpentaria Contracting 1999

Turtles, marine mammals and sea birds can be severely injured or die from entanglement in marine debris.



Turtles, marine mammals and sea birds can be severely injured or die from entanglement in marine debris, causing restricted mobility, starvation, infection, amputation, drowning and smothering.

Seabirds entangled in fishing lines, fragments of fishing nets, plastic packing straps or other marine debris may lose their ability to move quickly through the water, reducing their ability to catch prey and avoid predators; or they may suffer constricted circulation, leading to asphyxiation and death.

Fishing line debris, nets and ropes cut into the skin of marine mammals or turtles, leading to infection or the amputation of flippers, tails or flukes.


Marine species can confuse plastics including bags, rubber, balloons and confectionery wrappers with prey and swallow them. This debris can cause a blockage in the digestive system.

Turtles are known to eat plastic bags, confusing them with jellyfish, their common prey.

Sea birds eat polystyrene balls and plastic buoys, confusing them with fish eggs and crustaceans, and whales are also known to eat plastic debris.

What is Australia doing?

Key threatening process

'Injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris' has been listed as a key threatening process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act).

Threat abatement plan

In June 2009, the Australian Government made the Threat Abatement Plan for the Impacts of Marine Debris on Vertebrate Marine Life (the Plan) under the EPBC Act following consultation with stakeholders including industry, conservation groups, state, territory and local governments.

The Plan was developed in response to the Natural Resource Management (NRM) Ministerial Council's A National Approach to Addressing Marine Biodiversity Decline, which recognises marine pollution as a significant threat to the health of listed species.

It provides a framework with timeframes and actions to ensure a coordinated national approach on the issues. The Plan will:

  • review existing policies, codes of practice, conventions and activities to determine their effectiveness
  • coordinate abatement strategies identified in separate marine animal recovery plans, such as the Marine Turtle Recovery Plan and the Grey Nurse Recovery Plan; and
  • examine the effectiveness of joint agreements with other nations to address the issues of marine debris and its impact on wildlife, and assess the need for new ones.

The Australian Government is working in close cooperation with state and territory governments to implement the Plan. "A five year review on progress under the Plan is scheduled to take place in 2015.

Please note: marine debris resulting from the legal disposal of garbage at sea is excluded from the key threatening process. Under the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships, overboard disposal of food, paper, glass, metal and crockery (but not plastics) is permitted from vessels more than 12 nautical miles from land. For more information, see the Australian Maritime Safety Authority's MARPOL page.

Other activities

National waste policy

The Plan complements the Government's National Waste Policy and existing activities to mitigate the impacts of marine debris - such as State/Federal projects through the Standing Council on Environment and Water that address litter at its source, by reducing waste, increasing recycling and encouraging industry to take responsibility for their products.

The National Packaging Covenant is an example of a successful product stewardship scheme where governments and industry have worked together to reduce the environmental impacts of packaging.

Further information on the SCEW activities is available from their website at: or at Individual state and territory governments are also taking specific actions to address litter.

Caring for our country

Through the Australian Government's Caring for our Country initiative jointly administered by the Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry, funding has supported a range of on-ground activities. Recipients and partners include governments, land councils non-government organisations and community groups. Funded projects span a range of action items under the Plan, and include:

  • a series of 'ghost net' clean up projects across northern Australia, with funding provided over five years commencing in 2009/10 under the Working On Country program;
  • regional and local marine debris monitoring and cleanup, including education and awareness raising and industry initiatives, such as:
    • the Channel and Huon Coastal Waters Clean Up Project facilitated by the Tasmanian Seafood Industry Council. The project aims to enhance the health and condition of D'Entrecasteaux Channel and the Huon Estuary by removing debris, identifying common sources of marine farm debris and developing a management plan to reduce future entry of debris into coastal waters; and
    • a collaborative project between three Natural Resource Management Boards and partners around Gulf St Vincent and Kangaroo Island, South Australia including fishing industry, researchers and community groups to implement local level actions to address actions under the Plan.

Direct support has been made available for projects that enhance and extend our understanding of marine debris and assist our national response. Recent reports commissioned by the department include the Impacts of Plastic Debris on Australian Marine Wildlife (C&R Consulting Pty Ltd - June 2009) and Research on the Impact of Marine Debris on Marine Turtle Survival and Behaviour (Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation - June 2009).

Regional action

The Plan includes a number of regional and international actions that the Government is pursuing beyond our borders.

The Australian Government has an ongoing, active regional engagement on marine debris and litter including through the Coral Triangle Initiative, the Coordinating Body on the Seas of East Asia (COBSEA) and the Marine Resources Conservation Working Group of Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC).

As a part of this, the Government contributes to regional efforts to improve knowledge, prevention and responses to marine debris. This has included leading an APEC project Understanding the Economic Benefits and Costs of Controlling Marine Debris in the APEC Region.

International engagement

The Government maintains an active presence and participation in fora including the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). UNEP coordinates the Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities and also recently completed a survey of international marine debris impacts and activities, Marine Litter: A Global Challenge (UNEP, April 2009).

How can I get involved?

There are lots of ways you can make a contribution to reducing marine debris.

  • ensure that when you enjoy the marine environment you responsibly dispose of your rubbish to stop it becoming marine debris - use available facilities and be aware of best practice guidelines
  • participate in clean up activities
  • contribute to our collective understanding of this issue by assisting organisations undertaking activities such as coastal clean ups and surveys that record marine debris, and
  • consume wisely and help to reduce demand for materials that are possible sources of marine debris.

Where can I find out more?

Below is a range of publications and websites available on marine debris, with material ranging from local to national, regional and international. While not an exhaustive list, the links below provide a starting point to find out more. Your local government and community websites may be another useful source of information on local activities and events.