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Media Release
Minister for the Environment and Heritage
Dr David Kemp

13 August 2003

Kemp Acts to Reduce Impact of Plastic Bags and Other Debris on Marine Wildlife

Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Dr David Kemp, today boosted protection for Australia's marine wildlife by invoking the powers of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999 to combat the effects of harmful marine debris.

Harmful marine debris that injures or kills threatened marine vertebrates through entanglement or ingestion is now recognised as a Key Threatening Process based on the recommendation of the Commonwealth's Threatened Species Scientific Committee. The Minister has also commissioned a national Threat Abatement Plan.

"Plastic bags, abandoned fishing gear and solid waste illegally dumped by ships at sea can end up causing painful injuries and death to dozens of marine species including several endangered species," Dr Kemp said.

"The listing of marine debris as a Key Threatening Process will mean a national Threat Abatement Plan will be developed in consultation with stakeholders, such as local councils, State Governments and industry and environment groups. To facilitate this process a Threat Abatement Team will be formed.

"The plan will build on existing laws and mitigation activities such as improving stormwater management and installing pollutant traps in waterways. It will provide a coherent and strategic plan for filling any gaps across programs from reducing plastic bags in our community to managing waste disposal on the high seas.

"The plan will also examine the effectiveness of joint agreements with other nations to reduce and manage the six million tonnes of debris that enters the world's oceans each year and investigate the need for new agreements. This is particularly important for addressing the impact of marine debris on our northern shores.

"Under the $2.7 billion Natural Heritage Trust, the Howard Government has so far funded Clean Seas projects worth $28 million. Through this process, we will be looking at what more we can do to prevent marine debris and the terrible effects it can have on our wildlife.

"Whilst marine debris is a hazard for many sea creatures, it is a particular danger in Australian waters for at least 20 species already listed as threatened or endangered. They include Green Turtles, Loggerhead Turtles, Blue Whales, Humpback Whales, albatrosses and petrels.

"For example, turtles, whales and sea birds may be severely injured and even die after entanglement with marine debris such as fishing lines, fragments of trawl netting or plastic packing straps. Seabirds confuse polystyrene balls and plastic buoys with sea eggs or crustaceans and eat them. Turtles confuse plastic bags with jellyfish, their common prey.

"This listing underscores the importance of the work we are doing with the States and Territories to reduce the environmental impact of the six billion or so plastic shopping bags Australians dispose of each year. Earlier this month, governments and retailers agreed to work towards halving plastic bag use by the end of 2005, and cutting plastic bag litter by 75%. Environment Ministers have called for a complete phase out of light weight, single use plastic bags within 5 years."

The declaration of this Key Threatening Process will highlight problems surrounding the disposal of waste at sea and will lead to wider implementation of existing codes of conduct. The Threat Abatement Team will examine any new measures that may be required, such as technological solutions to make debris less harmful to wildlife, public education programs and new agreements with our northern neighbours.

For more information including the Harmful Marine Debris fact sheet, visit

turtle caught in fishing net

Turtle caught in a fishing net Credit: Lance Ferris, Australian Seabird Rescue

turtle caught by float

Turtle caught by float Credit: Lance Ferris, Australian Seabird Rescue

grey headed albatross

Grey headed albatross Credit: Australian Antartic Division

gould's petrel fledgling

Gould's petrel fledgling Credit: Nicholas Carlile

plastic bag in waterway

Plastic bag in waterway Credit: Department of the Environment and Heritage

humpback whale

Humpback whale Credit: Elsa Dexter

Commonwealth of Australia