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The UNSW SMaRT Centre, in partnership with not-for-profit advisory firm TierraMar, was commissioned by the Australian Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment (DAWE) to seek information to facilitate the improved removal and processing of Abandoned, Lost or Discarded Fishing Gear (or ghost nets) from Australia’s northern waters that will help identify activities that will provide the greatest net benefit for the investment made, and directly inform the investment in new infrastructure and/or coordinated services.

To address the challenge of ghost nets especially in the Gulf of Carpentaria, the Australian Government is implementing the Ghost Nets Initiative, that will run until June 2024. As part of the initiative, Parks Australia will be introducing a suite of new ghost net projects focusing on the Gulf of Carpentaria, commencing in the second half of 2021.

The joint UNSW SMaRT Centre / TierraMar study outlines a broad range of opportunities for achieving positive impacts in the fight against ghost nets and marine debris in northern Australia. Opportunities are regionally focused to the Gulf of Carpentaria to address the distinctive challenges faced in this location.

The Ghost Nets Initiative is looking at opportunities to invest in innovative technology and solutions highlighted in this study. Such investments will boost capacity for detection, collection, transport and responsible disposal of ghost nets and other plastic waste in northern Australia.

Joint UNSW, SMaRT Centre and TierraMar media release 

Download the Ghost Nets Report - A Needs Analysis and Feasibility Study for Northern Australia

Key findings

  • The report provides a regional infrastructure needs analysis and feasibility study to help identify activities that will boost capacity for collection, transport and responsible disposal of ghost nets and marine debris. It seeks to provide guidance to inform investment in new infrastructure and coordinated services through the Ghost Nets Initiative for northern Australia. This work has been undertaken using a combination of desktop research, materials analysis, and stakeholder consultation with government, community, industry, and non government organisation stakeholders.
  • The focus has been on listening to those stakeholders in the Gulf of Carpentaria to understand key challenges, issues and needs. Options identified, particularly in relation to opportunities towards achieving impact at scale, are provided following an assessment against key fundamental criteria as outlined below to ensure what is proposed is pragmatic and practical. For ghost nets and marine debris in northern Australia, finding the economies of scale needed for self-sustaining solutions is critical.
  • Reducing reliance on Government support to clean-up and dispose of the debris is dependent upon being able to produce high quality valuable products that reflect the unique cultural and artistic values and the strong connection to country of Indigenous communities in the region. It is imperative that any investments made do not place increased burden on Rangers without the necessary resources (human and financial) to increase workloads. For each stage of the ghost net/marine debris impact pathway, options considered most suitable for addressing the situation in the Gulf of Carpentaria, incorporating the priorities identified by key stakeholders, are summarised in the report.

What are ghost nets?

Abandoned, lost or discarded fishing gear (often referred to as ‘ghost gear’ or ‘ghost nets’) is considered one of the most damaging types of plastic pollution to marine life. Once lost, ghost nets continue to drift for periods from days to multiple years, continuing to entangle and kill marine wildlife indiscriminately.

The prevailing currents and conditions in the Arafura and Timor Seas and the Torres Strait mean that marine debris accumulates in the Gulf of Carpentaria, which is recognised as a global marine debris ‘hot spot’. Although this area is remote and sparsely populated, it has one of the highest rates of marine debris accumulation in Australia.

All six marine turtle species found in Australian waters are listed as threatened under Australian environmental legislation and four of the six - the olive ridley, hawksbill, green and flatback turtles - are regularly found entangled in derelict fishing nets.

Retrieval of a ghost net

Retrieval of a ghost net. Credit: Australian Fisheries Management Authority

Responsible disposal

  • Work with local and state governments working on municipal waste management and recycling schemes for northern Australia, to explore opportunities for marine debris and ghost nets. Consolidation of different waste streams within regions for more efficient transportation and processing will be important to achieve economies of scale.
  • Remanufacturing and to a lesser extent extrusion and injection moulding are considered the most feasible options for disposal. In addition to continuing ghost net art weaving, these options would allow for the expansion of art activities to use Green CeramicsTM and other methods such as 3D printing to maximise opportunities for communities to tell their stories to a broader audience of their connection to country and sell a wider range of products in large urban markets. For example, development of a range of high-quality homeware and building products, reflecting the unique cultures, artistic values and connections to country could be produced from ghost nets and marine debris coming out of northern Australia using cost effective MICROfactorieTM solutions for re-manufacturing (Green CeramicsTM) and thermo-mechanical recycling (extrusion and injection moulding for higher quality end of life fishing net only). Prototyping of suitable material pathways to develop products with a ready market should be undertaken however as a key step. A market survey is a pre-requisite to developing the prototypes.
  • Undertake a coordinated pilot program to establish a suitable modular recycling pathway for the Gulf of Carpentaria, utilising the prototyped products developed and informed by market opportunities. This could include establishing regional hubs for sorting and aggregation of marine debris and ghost nets and designing and then trialling cost effective logistic options for those Ranger groups and communities keen to participate to transport nets and marine debris from communities to collection points for re-processing. Identifying and working with a suitable supply chain to develop a business model that will provide cost effective and economically viable business and job opportunities for Ranger groups, communities, artists, and industry to share in the benefits will be a first key step.
  • Low quality marine debris and nets that are highly degraded should be taken to landfill as a first option unless municipal waste management can provide alternate solutions. Where no other options are viable, provide support to improve the safety and efficiency of burning marine debris and ghost nets by reviewing methods, providing training in safety protocols, and using portable incinerators, rather than open burning

What is happening under the Ghost Nets Initiative?

The Australian Government has committed $14.8 million to address the challenge of ghost nets and plastic litter in the waters and beaches of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

The Ghost Nets Initiative will be delivered by Parks Australia over the next three years, in partnership with other government agencies, Indigenous organisations and other key stakeholders to improve the health of our ocean, reduce threats to our marine life and boost Indigenous employment.

Building on past and present efforts by Indigenous communities, environmental groups and private industry, the Ghost Nets Initiative will focus on the following activities:

  • The delivery of new technology to better detect, collect and dispose of ghost nets, which may include mobile recycling plants, satellite tags and tracking databases.
  • Work conducted with Indigenous ranger groups to collect data on the source of ghost nets and coordinate retrievals and marine debris beach clean ups in the Gulf of Carpentaria, one of the nation’s hot spots for ghost nets drifting from foreign waters.
  • New trials to be conducted in collaboration with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA) and Maritime Border Command (MBC - a multi-agency taskforce, within the Australian Border Force), to attach GPS tracking devices to ghost nets when an initial retrieval is not possible due to unsafe conditions. This will enhance our ability to continually track the nets while they are drifting and arrange for their immediate retrieval by an appropriate vessel.

Read more from DAWE.