Thursday, 18 May, 2023
Located approximately 900km north of Cairns on the western side of the Gulf of Carpentaria, Mapoon is a remote aboriginal community with stunning coastlines and diverse marine life.
Unfortunately, like many remote locations, Mapoon is facing a plastic crisis.
In March, our Sea Shepherd Australia Marine Debris team headed to Mapoon for the first time to join forces with the Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers to tackle the marine debris problem. The Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers are responsible for the management of the traditional land and seas of the Tjungundji people at Mapoon Cape York Peninsula.
Flinders Beach: An important turtle habitat
To get to Mapoon, our team had to travel in 4WDs via dirt road, cross river crossing, hop on a barge and then travel with the rangers via ATV to the clean-up location – Flinders Beach.
Flinders Beach is of great importance to the Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers as it is their main turtle monitoring beach. Removing debris creates a much safer environment for the turtles to nest and limits their chances of ingesting micro-plastics which can be fatal to turtles.
"Endangered and threatened species research form a large part of rangers work throughout the year. One of the most important and satisfying is our Turtle Monitoring program. Rangers monitor three species of turtle - Flatback (threatened), Olive Ridley and Hawksbill (endangered). Within the month rangers mark from 500 – 800 nests and the nests are then monitored in the coming months.”Kelli Leatham, Executive Manager Environmental Services, Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers
The marine debris on Flinders beach is nothing short of relentless, arriving daily on the tide and washing up onto the beach. This poses a huge threat to turtle populations and other local marine life.
Last calendar year, the rangers removed 11.18 tons of debris from Mapoon’s coastline!
On our clean-up, we were joined by several other local groups including Queensland Police Services (QPS), Border Force, Bio Security, Department of Agriculture, Fishing and Forestry (DAFF) and My Pathways. It was encouraging to see so many teams come together to help shift debris and support the Mapoon rangers.
Removing the debris
The debris our teams collected had to be transported by barge to Cullen Point where it was unloaded by a backhoe into a skip which was then transported to Weipa to go into landfill. The tide made it difficult to get to and from the sites as at low tide the barge could not get in to collect us. We also experienced rough seas on a couple of days which meant we couldn’t unload the rubbish until the following day.
The debris was fairly spread out with a thicker debris line in the middle around the high tide mark. The top items we collected were bottle tops, bottles, hard plastics, thongs and polystyrene floats. 95% of items collected were plastic and 18.5% of all items collected were fishing related.
Currently only plastic bottles can be recycled through Containers for Change and looking forward to finding future solutions in recycling options for the Cape.
Wildlife on Mapoon
While protecting turtle populations is a key priority for the Mapoon rangers, the area is also home to a range of incredible marine life, including 18 threatened species and 75 listed marine species. Some of the animals that call the area home include the great hammerhead, scalloped hammerhead, winghead shark, eyebrow wedgefish, white spotted eagle ray, cownose ray, pigeye shark, nervous shark, sicklefin lemon shark, snaggletooth shark, freshwater whipray and many more!
Speartooth Sharks and Sawfish are critically endangered species that live in the waters surrounding Mapoon and the Mapoon Rangers work alongside researchers to protect them. Mapoon has two major river systems with highest population of these species in Australia.
Collecting important data
Aside from physically removing the debris from the area, it’s also vital that our teams collect data along the way. This data can help inform research into the broader issue of marine debris. Our teams conducted three surveys for CSIRO, and collected samples of plastic for UNSW. We also counted and sorted 10% of all the debris collected.
More than just a plastic problem
The Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers commenced operation in 2008 and are continuing tirelessly to look after their community, culture and country. Plastic pollution in areas such as Mapoon has impacts that reach beyond the physical. For local communities, seeing their home inundated with marine debris has a huge impact on their mental and emotional wellbeing. Seeing the rise in pollution sparks concern for their future and the land they are leaving to their children.
Our Sea Shepherd Australia Marine Debris team is already planning our return to Mapoon next year, to continue supporting the Mapoon Land and Sea Rangers in their vital mission to protect marine life and Country.