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Federal Minister for the Environment and Heritage
The Hon Dr David Kemp, MP

Doorstop - Parliament House, Canberra
Wednesday, 13 August 2003

Subject: Listing of Marine Debris as a Threatening Process to Endangered Species

Dr Kemp: I'll start off by filling in some background to today's announcement because not all of you may be aware of the context in which this announcement is being made and which gives it significance. As you know the Howard Government has passed the most powerful and important piece of environment legislation in Australia's history - the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act - and that Act enables the Federal Government to make a list of endangered and threatened species. It also has the capacity to give the Government the power to list threatening processes and what I'm announcing this morning is the listing of a very significant threat to some 20 species of endangered and vulnerable wildlife. We're talking this morning about marine animals, marine vertebrates, and the listing that I'm announcing today is that we are listing as a key threatening process injuries to vertebrate marine animals from the ingestion of or entanglement with waste that is thrown into the sea or comes into the sea from urban areas.

Anyone who's seen a major marine mammal entangled in a significant piece of netting, a turtle trying to swallow a plastic bag because they think it's a jellyfish, anyone who's seen the remarkable pictures of the endangered whale, the Bryde's whale caught near Cairns which had a stomach virtually full of fishing nets and compacted plastic bags and other rubbish will realise that the waste that is now being poured into our marine areas is a very significant threat to a number of endangered and vulnerable creatures in the marine environment.

By listing this key threatening process under the environment protection legislation that the Howard Government introduced, we will now be able to make sure that there is action to protect these threatened marine species from marine waste. What I'm going to be doing as a result of this listing is appointing a Threat Abatement team to draw up a Threat Abatement Plan involving all the relevant stakeholders, involving fishing interests, environmental interests, all levels of government, to make sure that we have in place proper laws and protections to reduce greatly the amount of marine debris.

Marine debris is enormously threatening to up to 20 endangered species. We need to have a national plan to reduce the amount of marine debris and protect these endangered species. We're talking here about species of whales, species of turtles and species of birds, all of whom identify various elements of the waste stream that's now in our oceans as potential food items.

These clearly are a very significant threat according to the Threatened Species Scientific Committee to a number of the vulnerable species in the marine environment around Australia.

By making this listing today, we're going to be able to review the relevant laws that control the putting of waste into the sea to make sure that they are being enforced, that there is proper compliance, and to identify whether there are any gaps in these laws. We're also going to be able to work with the relevant stakeholders in an educational sense to make sure that there are proper processes and procedures in place to reduce the amount of waste that goes into the oceans.

This obviously, let me say, supplements the decisions of the Commonwealth and State ministers recently in relation to plastic bags. Ministers have asked for the phase out of the lightweight single-use plastic bags over five years and they've asked for immediate action to reduce the use of these plastic bags by supermarket chains. But of course we're dealing here with debris that goes well beyond the plastic bag issue. We're dealing with rubbish thrown overboard from ships. We're dealing with abandoned fishing tackle; we're dealing here with polystyrene waste that comes into the seas as a result of stormwater drains after significant rainfalls. All of these are part of this key threatening process and as a result of the establishment of the Threat Abatement Plan and the Threat Abatement team to draw up this Plan, we'll be able to make sure that we've got now nationally and funded action to deal with this threat.

Journalist: Are we looking at sort of fines to try and prevent all this?

Dr Kemp: Of course there are very substantial fines already in place. There are fines of over one million dollars relevant when rubbish is thrown overboard from a ship. These are big fines so what we need to know is whether they are being enforced, whether the action is being complied with, whether the industry is doing everything it can to make sure that this particular threat doesn't happen. And of course we're concerned with a whole variety of threats. Many of the laws and fines that currently exist have been introduced in a piecemeal way. Different states have acted differently. There are different laws in different states. Clearly this is a problem that so far is not being adequately addressed on a coordinated basis and the result of this listing today obviously is to make sure that we do deal with it in a nationally coordinated way.

Journalist: So how then would you review the effectiveness of the action that you've taken today and over what period would you see that effect coming into play?

Dr Kemp: Well clearly we need to have continuing monitoring of this problem. What we have is a huge amount of anecdotal evidence. We are constantly finding animals that have been entangled in abandoned fishing gear or who've ingested particular elements of the waste stream. Continual monitoring of this is going to be important to us. What we are going to rely upon is the monitoring from a wide variety of industries and environmental organisations. We're looking to the community to help us in making sure that this Threat Abatement plan is fully effective.

Journalist: When would you want to see results? Over what sort of period?

Dr Kemp: Well, we want to see results in the near future. The Threat Abatement plan, we don't want to be a long term project in drawing it up but clearly there are a lot of laws in place and its going to take some time to review those laws. So over the next year or so we'll be seeing this plan drawn up and we'll be wanting to see it implemented of course as soon as this plan is in hand.

Journalist: On another issue, are you confident that your Heritage Bills will pass through the Senate this week?

Dr Kemp: Well I'm certainly very hopeful that we'll see support - strong support - for these Heritage laws in the Senate. Unfortunately the Labor Party have taken a very obstructive approach to the Heritage laws. That's the Labor Party at the Federal level. We've seen as usual, of course, divisions within the Labor party over this matter. I've received correspondence from the Tasmanian Premier looking forward to the listing under the national heritage listing that the laws will make possible of key convict sites within Tasmania. So that isn't going to be possible until the Federal Labor party and the minor parties change their attitude to the legislation. I've had discussions with the Democrats, I've had discussions with the other minor parties and the Independents and I'm hopeful that we will see support for these laws.

I believe that the Australian community want to see strong protection for our national heritage, the heritage that gives us our national identity. Heritage organisations very much want to see the release of the funds for the Distinctively Australian campaign, which will only be possible when these laws are passed. Distinctively Australian has been funded with additional monies in the budget of some 13 million dollars. This is a very substantial new commitment to Australia's heritage and it will only be possible to list nationally significant heritage when these laws are passed. So I call on the Labor party to abandon its obstructive attitude and to support the passage of these laws through the Senate in the shortest possible time.

Journalist: Is there any good news on the dolphins in Honiara. Is there any good news on their welfare or whether they'll be released?

Dr Kemp: Well, it's very important for us to note that there are probably some 170 dolphins still being held captive in the Solomons. I've spoken personally to the Fisheries Minister for the Solomons. I've corresponded with the Solomon Islands government about this. It seems that there are no currently existing plans for any further export of dolphins. We're not aware of any countries which have given permission now to import any further of these dolphins. So the dolphins are simply being held there in pens in the Solomons. It seems that these pens are grouping the dolphins in very overcrowded conditions. The water is shallow. There are concerns over the health of these dolphins and if there is no intention to export these dolphins in compliance with international conventions, then the obvious action for the Solomon Islands to take is to release the dolphins.


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