Plastic waste is spoiling the lands of Wessel Islands archipelago

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva


Researchers from Charles Darwin University (CDU) are alarmed by the volume of plastic and fishing net waste washing up on the shores of the Wessel Islands archipelago, north of the Australian coast.

The narrow island is about 55km long – 8km wide at its broadest point – and is the second-largest island in the archipelago.

In October, CDU staff visited the archipelago’s Marchinbar Island, about 550km east of Darwin, and were shocked to see the volume of fishing gear and plastics both on the beach and in the shallow waters surrounding the island. 

Research fellow Dr Carol Palmer said that the amount of plastic waste on the islands seem to increase with each visit.

“It was on my 2011 visit that I first noticed the plastic waste, and later in 2016, when I returned, I noticed that the amount of plastic waste had increased significantly,” said Dr Palmer.

“Now in 2021, the amount of plastic and fishing gear is just astounding – both on the western side and eastern side of Marchinbar Island of the Wessel Archipelago.”

She added that the winds and current around the island contributed to the accumulation of litter and plastic waste, and according to her observations, the archipelago is the most littered place in Australia’s Northern Territory.

The most surprising change, she said, was the number of ghost nets drifting around the island. Ghost nets are abandoned or lost nets from fishing vessels and can stretch for kilometres, harming marine life including fish and turtles that become trapped or die.

Since 2016, Gumurr Marthakal Rangers have managed 323,048 ha of land, sea, and island chains as part of the Marthakal Indigenous Protected Area, which includes the Wessel Islands Archipelago.  

Based at Galiwin’ku on Elcho Island, the rangers are also in charge of monitoring and removing ghost nets from their patrol area, managing coffee bush, and monitoring billabongs for the potential arrival of Mimosa pudica, an invasive plant species. 

Marcus Lacey, Gumurr Mrthakal ranger and the executive officer, said the waste is worse than ever and continues to worsen after every wet season. 

“You mainly get the westerlies (Western winds) during the wet season, which brings all the plastic waste from the Timor Sea, then in the dry season you get winds that dump plastics on the eastern side of the islands.”

Lacey added that because of isolation and resource limitations, the rangers were not capable of doing a cleanup and that the plastic waste should be stopped at the source as a solution. 

“You look at the labels and the bottles, and you can see that about 80 per cent comes from Asia,” he said.

One solution being considered is establishing a ranger station on Marchinbar Island to ensure continuous waste management through the direction of the traditional owners. 

“We want a permanent ranger station there. To give people and traditional owners a chance to have access to their country and to care for it,” Lacey concluded.

Kaycee Enerva

Kaycee Enerva

A digital content manager based in the Philippines, Kaycee Enerva has written for multiple publications over several years. A graduate of Computer Science, she exchanged a career in IT to pursue her passion for writing. She's slowly practicing sustainability through period cups, and eating more plant-based food.

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