Understanding the effects of marine debris on wildlife: Final report to Earthwatch Australia

Select | Print

Hardesty, Denise; Wilcox, Chris; Lawson, TJ; Van Der Velde, Tonya; Lansdell, Matt

Hardesty, Denise; Wilcox, Chris; Lawson, TJ; Van Der Velde, Tonya; Lansdell, Matt




Executive Summary Marine debris is a global environmental issue of increasing concern. Marine ecosystems worldwide are affected by human-made refuse, much of which is plastic. The potential impacts of waste mismanagement are broad and deep. Marine debris comes from both land and sea-based sources and can travel immense distances. It can pose a navigation hazard, smother coral reefs, transport invasive species and negatively affect tourism. It also injures and kills wildlife, can transport chemical contaminants and may pose a threat to human health. Marine debris includes consumer items such as glass or plastic bottles, cans, bags, balloons, rubber, metal, fibreglass, cigarettes and other manufactured materials that end up in the ocean and along the coast. It also includes fishing gear such as line, ropes, hooks, buoys and other materials lost on or near land, or intentionally or unintentionally discarded at sea. The Australian government has recognised marine debris as a key threatening process, because of the potential harm it poses to wildlife. In 2003, ‘injury and fatality to vertebrate marine life caused by ingestion of, or entanglement in, harmful marine debris’ was listed as a key threatening process under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). A key threatening process is defined one that ‘threatens or may threaten the survival, abundance or evolutionary development of a native species or ecological community’. Under the EPBC Act, the Australian government implemented the Threat Abatement Plan (TAP) which focuses on strategic approaches to reduce impacts and injuries to marine fauna and ecological communities. CSIRO’s national marine debris project set out to address knowledge gaps identified in the TAP. The project engaged with young Australians while collecting robust, scientific data relevant to the global marine litter problem. To understand the patterns and sources of marine debris and assess the potential harm posed to Australia’s marine fauna, our research sought to address four questions: 1) What are the sources, distribution, and ultimate fate of marine debris? 2) What is the exposure of marine wildlife to debris? 3) When wildlife are exposed to debris, what factors determine whether animals ingest or are entangled by debris? 4) What is the effect of ingestion or entanglement on marine wildlife populations? To address the first question, we carried out a national coastal marine debris survey at sites approximately every 100 km along the Australian coastline. Parts of this work and related research activities were incorporated into TeachWild, a national three-year marine debris research and education program developed by Earthwatch Australia together with CSIRO and Founding Partner Shell. This is the world’s largest scale, integrated, rigorous collection of marine debris data. As part of TeachWild, we engaged with more than 5,500 students, teachers and Shell employees in one-day research and training projects that helped to build knowledge, skills and to change attitudes in issues relating to ocean health. We engaged with more than 150 teachers and Shell employees in immersive, single and multi-day field-based research expeditions led by CSIRO scientists. We also developed curriculum content using marine debris as a teaching tool for science and mathematics to meet the Australian national curriculum guidelines. CSIRO scientists inspired students to explore their world through science in ways that were meaningful and relevant, motivated teachers through innovative learning, and helped increase capacity and networks for educators and citizen scientists, in Australia and beyond. Staff scientists engaged in live-links and video calls that enabled students and Shell employees to ask questions, promoting deeper community engagement. Through this project we connected schools, communities and industry with scientists on a globally important conservation issue through extensive



Ecology not elsewhere classified

Published Version (pdf) (25.32MB)


This report has been placed on the CSIRO repository and may be made available to persons outside of CSIRO for non commercial purposes, in its entirety and without deletion of disclaimers and copyright information.


Client Report (Author)


Hardesty, Denise; Wilcox, Chris; Lawson, TJ; Van Der Velde, Tonya; Lansdell, Matt. Understanding the effects of marine debris on wildlife: Final report to Earthwatch Australia. CSIRO: CSIRO; 2014. csiro:EP147352. https://doi.org/10.4225/08/585039606e65d

Loading citation data...

Citation counts
(Requires subscription to view)