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Speech: Marine Pollution

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Senator RHIANNON (New South Wales) (13:09): I am a keen birdwatcher. I even have a list for Parliament House, although it is barely into double figures. But there is a good spot for watching birds, and that is Malabar Headland. It is one of those spectacular sandstone cliff faces that pushes off the east coast. There you can see many wonderful marine birds—gannets, shearwaters, gulls, terns. I have never been lucky enough to see an albatross but I know others have seen them.

Senator O'Sullivan: There are some in here!

Senator RHIANNON: And I acknowledge the interjection for some reason. But when I do see these birds and visit this spot, what is in my mind is the impact that plastic pollution is having on these wonderful marine birds. There are many academic studies that should be alerting us to what is an incredibly serious environmental catastrophe that is building.

One particularly significance study is called, Threat of plastic pollution to seabirds is global, pervasive, and increasing. It is by Chris Wilcox, Erik Van Sebille and Britta Hardesty. The study found that seabirds are particularly vulnerable to plastic pollution. The marine birds have been widely observed to ingest floating plastic. Worryingly, the study found that the impact of plastic is greatest at the southern boundary of the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic oceans. That is an area has been thought to be particularly pristine, and now we hear this alarming news.

The authors of this study describe how the threat to population numbers of marine birds from plastic pollution is geographically widespread and rapidly increasing. Also, the United Nations Environment Programme, in its yearbook for 2011, gave us a really big wake-up call. Sadly, I do not think it has been heard or acted on to the degree it should be. It described marine plastics as a new toxic time bomb. This report identified that the harm from plastic comes from not only entangling wildlife—and we have all seen those tragic photographs—or from being mistaken as food by marine birds and other animals but the accumulation and concentration of chemicals such as polychlorinated biphenyls and the pesticide DDT. This is the thing that I really wanted to speak about today. So much of marine wildlife—fish, molluscs and other marine creatures that people eat, and that our birds and other animals eat—are becoming full of very dangerous chemicals because of the plastic that is filling our oceans.

There has been a Senate inquiry into this—and I congratulate my colleague Senator Peter Whish-Wilson for initiating it. The report was called, Toxic tide: the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia. I understand that it has had an impact—that the urgent need for container deposit legislation, something the Greens and so many community and environment groups have campaigned on for years, is now being seriously considered and, hopefully, fast-tracked by state governments. But the problem is so serious it needs to be given greater, more detailed attention.

I draw senators' attention to the work of the National Toxics Network and, in particular, their submission to that inquiry that I just mentioned. Dr Mariann Lloyd-Smith is an international expert in this area. Fortunately, she lives in Australia and gives particular attention to these issues. What I am reading here is from one of the recommendations that the National Toxics Network made to that Senate inquiry. They have called on the government to address the inadequate regulation of industrial chemicals in Australia. They note that there are over 38,000 industrial chemicals listed on the Australian Inventory of Chemical Substances, of which fewer than 3,000 have been assessed for their health and environmental impacts. They go on to detail how life-cycle assessments of industrial chemicals must be undertaken—something that the Greens strongly agree with. The National Toxics Network has also called on Australia to adopt the idea of an industrial chemical regulator that has the power to enforce its recommendations for risk reduction and the power to ban industrial chemicals where the risks to the environment and human health are too great and cannot be managed. That recommendation very much feeds into the growing concern about plastic pollution in our oceans, which is also about toxic chemical pollution.

This issue has been back in the news this week, with further information released from various studies. Scientists at Ghent University in Belgium have identified that people who eat shellfish are consuming up to 11,000 plastic fragments in their seafood each year. That is a very worrying report. Then there is Plymouth University in Britain. Last year, they reported that plastic was found in a third of British-caught fish, including cod, haddock, mackerel and shellfish. Fish was once regarded as a healthier option than red meat and poultry, but now, if you do eat meat and fish products, fish and seafood is looking like the dangerous option. At Plymouth University their marine laboratory has released film of zooplankton eating microplastics. I wanted to mention that to really try and get across how pervasive this is. 'Pervasive' is the term being used when we talk about the levels of pollution, because when the zooplankton are eating microplastics it is penetrating right through the food chain up into the fish products that so many people eat regularly in their diet.

In my opening remarks I mentioned how I am a keen bird watcher. I have only ever seen one albatross in my life, and hopefully one day I will see another one. But I particularly wanted to share this: albatrosses are really being hit hard by plastic pollution. There is a wonderful albatross called the Laysan albatross, and it is found across the North Pacific. Until recently, its numbers had been increasing. It was thought they were populating new islands or possibly repopulating them. But now they are being hit very hard by this pollution, both in terms of getting caught up in the plastic and in terms of what happens when it is ingested. Some of the studies have found that it is particularly hitting the young albatrosses very hard. The little chicks are dying before fledging. Necropsies carried out on the chicks—I had only heard of autopsies—have found that their stomachs are filled with plastic trash.

The impact on our biodiversity is huge—there are impacts on the population numbers, obviously, and there is the issue of animal cruelty. But what has mainly prompted me to make this speech today is my concern about the toxicity of these plastics that are entering our food chain and the impact that is having on so many species, and particularly on humans. We need to look after our own species, but we are not doing a very good job. There are now some very wise recommendations on what we need to do about this crisis, and they should be acted on.

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