The Gulf of Carpentaria is emblematic of the rugged and beautiful country that Australians call home. Bordered to the west by the top end of the Northern Territory and to the east by Queensland, the Gulf covers an area of 300,000km2 of water and is considered one of the most pristine marine environments in the world.
But increasingly, the Gulf of Carpentaria is being invaded by enormous swarms of synthetic fishing nets from South East Asia. Known as ‘ghost nets’, these abandoned nets swirl throughout the Gulf, ensnaring fish indiscriminately, polluting the coastlines and wreaking havoc on boats and sea vessels.
In response, the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme was set up. One of five Coastcare groups that benefit from direct sponsorship by Club Marine, the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme brings together funding from the Australian Government and other concerned groups. The aim is to support a network of indigenous rangers from small coastal communities, who identify and remove the nets from the Gulf’s coastline.
Lisa Hamblin is the Project Officer for the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme. She says that since it started in 2005, over 200 types of nets have been identified, with less than 10 per cent of them being of Australian origin. The nets contain sharks, marine turtles and a wide range of rubbish. “Mostly plastic bottles with Asian writing on them,” Hamblin says, “and, weirdly, left-footed thongs.”
These are not the run-of-the-mill nets you use to pull in barra off the back of your dinghy. These are enormous, industrial nets. The largest retrieved so far was a 6-tonne, 19km-long Taiwanese gill net pulled from the Gulf in 2006. “It was a huge steel net – sort of difficult to lose,” Hamblin says. “We reckon that whoever was using it was fishing illegally and just cut it loose when they saw an Australian Customs boat.”
As Project Officer, Hamblin visits the 18 participating indigenous ranger groups spread out along the coastline of the Gulf, from the Dhimurru at the top of the Northern Territory to the Mura Badulgal on Badu Island in the Torres Strait. “This is definitely a ground-up project,” Hamblin says. “It’s directed by the people who work on the ground.”
The rangers call themselves the ‘saltwater people’ in recognition of their cultural links with the sea, and they play a vital role in the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme. The rangers patrol the coastlines, remove the nets, rescue the animals and report on each recovery project. Hamblin says that it would be hard to overestimate how demanding ghost net retrieval is. “This is hard work,” she says. “A lot of these nets aren’t just sitting around; they’re buried and you have to dig them out.”
The information the rangers provide on the nets and on the animals they rescue gives marine scientists the hard data they need to better understand the ghost net phenomenon. The rangers’ real-world assessments of the ghost net situation have a long history. After all, it was the rangers who first brought the ghost net issue to the attention of the world.
THE NET EFFECT
Around 20 years ago, indigenous communities living around the Gulf coast began to notice an increase in the amount of plastic rubbish washing ashore. In particular, they were concerned with the huge quantities of nylon fishing nets that they had never seen before. Because no one knew who owned them or where they came from, the nets became known as ‘ghost nets’.
For thousands of years, marine debris has washed ashore in the Gulf of Carpentaria. Because of its unique shape and landlocked location, the Gulf acts like a sort of catchment for rubbish from the entire Indo-Pacific region. Before plastics and synthetic materials became common, this rubbish came in the form of trees and seaweed, as well as man-made products, like canoes and fishing nets made from organic fibres.
The introduction of plastics and synthetic fibres, like nylon fishing nets, changed the game. Buoyant and extremely durable, discarded plastics follow the same ancient ocean currents as organic materials do. The difference is, plastics last longer. Much longer. According to Riki Gunn, chief coordinator for the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme, nets made of plastic can take up to 600 years to break down.
Once inside the Gulf, the ghost nets get caught up in the Gulf’s strong, circular clockwise current called the ‘gyre’. After they’re caught in the gyre, the nets begin an endless voyage around the Gulf, repeatedly being washed ashore and then washed back into the water after major storms. Unless they’re removed, they will continue to do what they’re designed to do: capture marine animals, restrict their movement, starve them and kill them.
As the ghost nets drift along their massive circular course, their indiscriminate fishing follows a pattern of its own. As the nets fill with fish and exceed the buoyancy of their floats, they sink to the sea floor, where crustaceans and other fish eat the trapped marine life. Then the floats pull the nets up again, and the cycle continues – perhaps for hundreds of years.
Lisa Hamblin says it’s difficult to quantify the real impact ghost nets have on the marine life of the Gulf. But even by the limited estimates drawn from direct encounters with ghost nets, the numbers are staggering. Just last February, in a single instance of mass stranding, Napranum rangers found 62 olive ridley turtles entangled in ghost nets on a stretch of beach west of Weipa on the Cape York Peninsula.
For all the nets that are found and retrieved by the rangers, an unknown number continue to move around the Gulf unseen. “They’re a lot like icebergs that have a little bit exposed on the surface,” Hamblin says. “Great masses of the nets are underneath the water.”
What is known for certain is that less than 10 per cent of the nets come from Australia. Increasingly, the need to tackle the problem at the source is becoming apparent. For all the success the Carpentaria Ghost Nets Programme has had in retrieving nets, the new front in the campaign to eliminate the problem altogether might be in the countries where most of the nets originate: Taiwan, Indonesia and Korea.
Currently, plans are being formulated to take the ghost net message to resource management groups in South East Asia. The hope is that many of the worst offenders simply don’t realise that the nets they routinely throw over the side of their boats are hurting the marine life and the people who live in and around the Gulf of Carpentaria. It’s possible that, once they learn about the damage they are causing, the flow of nets into the Gulf will decline.
But Hamblin is not na´ve about the size of the challenge. While acknowledging that an education programme in South East Asia won’t magically eliminate the ghost nets, she says it’s an important step in driving down the numbers. “Obviously, you’re always going to have illegal fishers,” she says, “but if we can get our message to most of the legal fishers, the number of nets might be reduced.”
With an area of 203km2, Muralag (Prince of Wales) island is the largest island in Torres Strait. Largely vacant and populated by no more than a few families, the island does not have facilities for electricity, water, waste or sewerage.
From the months of October to December last year, a team of indigenous rangers carried out an intensive clean-up of the island. Throughout the six-week-long intensive effort, the nine Kaurareg rangers worked every day to remove the ghost nets that have accumulated over the past two years.
When asked what it’s like to be a part of the team that is removing the scars on the land made by the ghost nets and other marine debris, Project Coordinator Isaac Savage quickly dispenses with the abstract notions. “Mate, it’s a lot of work,” he says simply.
Working from dawn to mid-afternoon each day and camping out at night, the team carried out the exhausting task of removing nets from rocky shorelines and crocodile-infested mangroves. Often, the nets were entangled in areas difficult to access and the rangers had to struggle to reach them. “Getting the nets out of the mangroves is especially difficult,” Savage explains. “We had to wait until high tide before we could swim in and drag the nets out.”
In total, the rangers picked up 150 nets over about 60km of coastline.
The nets removed during the operation varied in size from 1m to 165m and had a combined length of approximately 2130m.
But despite the large haul, few are celebrating. Since the completion of the project, the monsoon season has brought a new batch of nets to replace those that have been removed.
We’re happy that we have the chance to care for our country,” Savage says, refusing to be discouraged. “This was something that needed to be done and we just want to say thank you to Club Marine for sponsoring the programme.”