Two-way Learning on Country: Untrashing Elcho Island

Wednesday, 22 May, 2024


- 8 days of action across Elcho Island from 13-27 April 2024.
- 7,374 kilos of debris removed from 18,697 metres of shoreline.
- 679 bags of plastic debris collected.
- Over 3,000kg of nets and rope removed from shorelines.
- An estimated 102,879 pieces of trash prevented from re-entering the marine ecosystem.

Earlier this year an illegal fishing vessel washed up on Ŋayawili, a homeland located 5km north of Galiwin'ku on the southern end of Elcho Island - one of the islands striking out from the northern shores of Arnhem Land, 550km northeast of Darwin, as a part of a group of islands known as Wessels.

This illegal vessel has been leaking fluids, ghost nets and insulation on to the beach since it washed up months ago, contaminating the surrounding environment. When Sea Shepherd’s remote Marine Debris clean-up crew and Gumurr Marthakal rangers arrived for the first day of the project, a whole beach was covered in the insulation. It took the crew an entire day to remove the majority of this insulation from the beach.

An illegal fishing vessel washed up on the shores of Elcho Island. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
Rangers work to remove the masses of insulation scattered across the beach. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd

Over a ton of netting was also cleared, including one net stretching out over 100 metres into the water and down to the ocean floor - potentially trapping and killing any creatures unfortunate to come across its path. Rough seas prevented the crew from taking a barge to the northern island of Martjanba until later in the week, so efforts were refocused to Refuge Bay on the northwest coast of Elcho Island.

For the next two days at Refuge Bay, the Sea Shepherd crew and Gumurr Marthakal rangers were joined by students from Shepherdson College’s Learning on Country program. With the rangers, LOC kids and Sea Shepherd all working together, it only took two days to clean Refuge Bay from end to end.

Over 100 metres of netting gets hauled out of the bay. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd.
Students from Shepherdson College's Learning on Country program join the efforts. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
Gumurr Marthakal rangers head down the beach in their ATV. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd

The crew was then hit by further bad weather that was expected to get worse. The rangers deemed it unsafe to leave the barge in the water at this location, so the decision was made to instead set sail for Galiwin'ku, to count and sort a portion of the previous day’s clean-up and remove more nets from the beaches of Ŋayawili.

The wild weather did not improve over the weekend, making it too dangerous to head to Martjanba. Instead, the crew spent the next 4 days cleaning the shores of Gitan', 37km east of Galiwin’ku on the northern shore of Elcho Island.

Two groups of students from the Shepherdson College Learning on Country program joined the crew to talk about marine plastic pollution and the environment while the tireless clean-up efforts continued.

The crew unload the barge as more challenging weather rolls in. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
Junior Learning on Country Coordinator Jerome Lacey assists a crew member to haul netting from the sand. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd

The crew were lucky enough to see a flat back turtle nesting under the full moon in Gitan'. The turtle was nesting safely on the recently-cleaned and plastic-free beach thanks to the work of the Gumurr Marthakal rangers and Sea Shepherd crew.

As the crew headed out early the next morning, they found another flat back turtle nesting on the cleaned beach - another sign driving the volunteers to continue on with their gruelling labour despite the extreme heat, humidity and downpours of rain.

Near the end of the clean, the crew came to a partially dried creek that was drowning in plastic pollution. The amount of plastic and net choking the creek was trapping marine life, preventing it from returning to the safety of the sea in low tide, including a guitar shark that was spotted by the crew. They spent a day focusing on this area alone – removing well over a ton of plastic pollution and net from the suffocating creek.

The crew looks on as a turtle heads up the cleaned beach to lay her eggs. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
A crew member works to clear the creek bed. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd
The crew collects data from a long day of clearing debris under a gorgeous evening sky. Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd

On their last night at Gitan', the crew witnessed an incredible sunset that lit the sky with an array of breathtaking colours. The rangers later told the Sea Shepherd crew that this was country telling the crew that it was sad for them to be leaving the next day, but grateful for all the work they had put in to protect these special coastlines.

This project was a great success and showed what can be achieved when Yolŋu and Balanda work together, as well as the benefits of two-way learning.

The Gumurr Marthakal rangers were extremely generous with their time and sharing their stories and knowledge of country with Sea Shepherd’s crew, who will carry the memories of their time together on country for the rest of their lives.

Photo: Jake Parker/Sea Shepherd




The crew sorted, counted and categorised 13% of all debris collected during this project.


Two Coastal Transect surveys were conducted for CSIRO, consisting of 6 transects - one at Refuge Bay and the other at Gitan'.


Data was also collected for CSIRO and Eyesea, and some ghost nets were retrieved for Bracenet.

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