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Christmas Island: The hidden crisis

Tuesday, 22 Nov, 2022

During our 2022 clean-up, the growing tide of plastic pollution was again revealed on Greta Beach, a small cove on Christmas Island, known as the Galapagos of Australia. 

An update from Sea Shepherd's Australia's 2022 clean-up of Christmas Island by Marine Debris Campaigner, Liza Dicks. 

The ocean surrounding Christmas Island is now a protected area.

Recently, the ocean surrounding Christmas Island has been declared a marine park, making it Australia's second largest protected area, complementing the already established National Park covering 65% of the island. 

From the dark blue ocean, steep cliffs rise, forming the coastline, home to significant seabird rookeries. The small sandy coves scattered along the cliffs are year-round nesting sites for green turtles. Red crabs make their way down to them during one of the largest migrations in the animal kingdom. 

Sea Shepherd never underestimates the importance of protecting these significant remote places that are still abundant in marine life. 

However, its remote location does not protect it from the threat of ocean plastic. The island is geographically positioned amid the Indonesian Throughflow Current, which carries a constant stream of trash into the Indian Ocean. 

A current of plastic headed directly for Greta Beach.

The small coves of Christmas Island are a magnet for marine plastics, with Greta Beach attracting a never-ending toxic tide during the trade wind season from May through October. 

This year the overwhelming result of the intensive clean-up campaign was the removal of a staggering 3.2 tonnes of trash over five days by eight crew, an increase of nearly half a tonne from the 2021 clean-up

80% of the plastic was made up primarily of small, hard plastic pieces and polystyrene. The density of plastic on this small 80m beach alarmed the crew as it was the worst the experienced team had seen. 

Each day the crew made the 30-minute drive from the Settlement to Greta Bach. They travelled via a 4wd track winding through the rainforest under the magnificent canopy which rises to a height of 40m. 

On each trip, the crew stopped numerous times to allow stately giant robber crabs to amble safely across the road and continue their journey. 

Robber crabs are the largest of all land crustaceans.

On the first day, the returning crew had mixed emotions about what they would see on Greta Beach. They quickly made their way over the giant roots of the pandanus trees to reach the steep steps that lead to the beach. 

As they looked down on to the beach, they were greeted  by the shocking sight of a  mosaic of  brightly coloured plastic pieces covering the small cove of Greta Beach. 

Alarmingly, a black tide line was spotted along the beach, and a closer look revealed a tide line of plastic trash covered in thick black oil. 

Large plastic bags filled with oil were on the beach, and the contents had leaked onto the sand.

It was ironic that the crew cleaned up plastic items made from oil whilst standing on a beach polluted by oil - the raw material used to produce plastic. 

The impact on local wildlife was already clear. We came across hermit crabs with their legs covered in the heavy black substance. The crew immediately felt a sense of urgency to protect these creatures, and very quickly set to work filling bags with oil-covered plastic pieces. 

Greta beach not only seems to be a target for plastic but also for large pieces of driftwood. Logs are an obstacle for nesting turtles and hatchlings on their journey to and from the ocean. After sighting three turtle nests at the top of the beach, two volunteers piled the logs up in one area to ensure the turtles would have a clear path. 

The hidden crisis from the impact of the toxic tide of plastic pollution on remote beaches is clear to see on Greta beach. In one area of just a few meters, the crew used shovels to fill over 100 bags weighing over a tonne whilst standing in plastic up to their knees. 

The team felt a roller-coaster of emotions whilst cleaning up the high loading of plastic from Greta beach, from feeling overwhelmed to elated. At the end of each day, all were exhausted from carrying all the heavy bags full of trash up the steep stairs and through the forest to load onto the utes. 

Cleaning up alone will not solve the crisis, but by each of us taking direct action on the beaches we are able to expose the actual polluters and hold them accountable for the rapidly rising amounts of trash infiltrating the ocean.

There are two option: do nothing or clean up. The choice has been made for us, as we cannot stand by and watch as plastic piles up along the coastline. 

Sea Shepherd will always take direct action and continue to protect marine life by reducing the loading of ocean plastic pollution on the beaches. 

"The density of plastic circulating presently in our oceans is hard to imagine. Still, when 1.3 tonnes of plastic is removed from a tiny area of beach, no bigger than most people’s kitchens, this gives a small insight into the scale of the plastic crisis we are currently facing. Climate change and plastic turmoil are two significant threats to humans, the oceans, and our future on this planet. They are both attributed to the same source, the fossil fuel industry. We can no longer stand by and wait. We must act and demand change from these big polluters."

Liza Dicks, Remote Marine Debris Campaigner

Everyday, our team saw a steady stream of plastic heading directly onto the beach. Our surveys revealed an estimated 2.5 million pieces of plastic across a 4m tide line on Greta Beach. 

Quadrat Survey along high tide line.

Our data collection shows a snapshot of what was covering Greta beach, with 99.95% of the items being plastic. 

With over a third of the world's plastic production used to make single-use plastic items annually, it is hardly surprising that over 27,000 straws were picked up in two days, along with bottle tops, water cups and food packaging. 

Thousands of single use straws polluting Greta Beach .

Removed in two days from Greta Beach:

POLYSTYRENE                                                        440,387 
HARD PLASTIC                                                        311,991 
RUBBER REMNANT                                                64,120 
BOTTLE TOPS/LIDS                                                37,519 
STRAWS                                                                  27,473 
BURNT PLASTIC                                                    11,611 
WATER CUPS                                                         7,981 
PERSONAL CARE BOTTLES                                6,328 
FOOD PACKAGING/CONTAINERS                       4,655 
ROPE and SCRAPS (LESS THAN A METRE)       4,433 

After four arduous days on Greta Beach, the team's hard work was rewarded with the sight of white sand saved from the toxic plastic cover. Crabs scurried around free from the oil-polluted items, and the crew were ecstatic at the results of their work knowing that they had made the beach safer for all marine life. 

Happy crew at the end of cleaning Greta Beach.

"Seeing a clean beach was the best reward for the enormous effort made by every team member."

Karolina Strittmatter – Sea Shepherd Marine Debris Admin Coordinator

The ocean around Christmas Island is home to diverse and vulnerable marine life. All of these beautiful animals are sadly affected by the staggering amount of marine debris polluting their home.

When standing on the cliffs, turtles, sharks, giant trevally, dolphins and whales can all be spotted swimming in the deep blue water below. This reminded everyone why it is vital we continue to protect remote places such as Christmas Island. 

Each of us can be part of the change just by taking some simple actions:

1Join a Sea Shepherd Australia clean-up event, or pick up litter as you walk along your local beach.

2. Refuse single-use plastics and send a strong message to the fossil fuel and packaging industry that it is time for real change.

3. Remove fish from your diet; reduce your plastic footprint and refuse to take part in the 1 million tonnes of fishing gear dumped into the ocean each year.

By working together, we will have clean oceans again! 

Acknowledgements

The clean-up was supported by:

- The Shire of Christmas Island   

- Community Resource Centre    

- Christmas Island Visitors Centre  

- Freight shop Perth

- Eco Crab Industries

- Island Care -  Christmas Island

 

 We would like to thank everyone for their ongoing work on island to keep the beaches clean.

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