A COUPLE undertaking a citizens’ science project have discovered three mini-versions of the Great Pacific garbage patch off WA’s coast.
The worst-affected area is in the fragile and remote Ningaloo Reef, where Jamie and Base Van Jones collected 13 pieces of micro-plastic from a square metre of beach.
Another hotspot at the Monte Bello Islands was piled with food packaging which appeared to have originated from Indonesia and Malaysia.
But the Fremantle couple, who spent eight months cruising WA’s mid-coast on their 11-metre yacht Charade while doing 36 debris surveys, said a patch off the back of Dirk Hartog Island was truly international.
“What was amazing about that patch was it was international, and from the packaging you could see where everything had come from; Asian countries and even as far away as Europe,” Ms Van Jones told the Voice.
Plastic bag beach
Mr Van Jones says some may have been come from vessels on their way around the southern coast of Australia, but he believes the wide range of countries represented and variety of rubbish indicates much has been brought by the major currents that swirl around the Indian Ocean.
Ms Van Jones says that two months before their visit, volunteers from the Sea Shepherd Marine Debris Campaign did a clean-up at the beach, so they’d probably seen it at its best.
“The worst spot was in the middle of Ningaloo at a place called Point Cloates, where on the south side there was mainly fragmented plastic, while on the northern side, which we called Plastic Bag Beach, there was plastic bags from all over,” Ms Van Jones says.
“There were so many plastic bags.”
Ningaloo was previously identified by the WA Museum as a “natural shipwreck trap” because of the ocean currents; in fact, the story goes the first Ningaloo Station homestead was built using flotsam from shipwrecks because the native timber isn’t much chop.
Mr and Mrs Van Jones warn that the conditions that create the trap at Ningaloo may present a threat to migrating humpback whales and whale sharks.
“With Coates Point, when you look on the chart it sticks out, and it’s where the south-flowing Leeuwin current meets the Ningaloo current, which is north-flowing,” Mr Van Jones says.
“That creates a swirl that concentrates the krill, and that’s why the whale sharks come there.”
His wife finishes: “If the plastic is coming onto the beach, then it is in the water, and there is a lot of filter feeders like humpbacks so there’s a chance of them ingesting it with the krill.”
The pair’s research has been submitted to a national marine debris database being collected by the Tangaroa Blue Foundation.
Ms Van Jones says that while the find was sobering, they didn’t want to give the impression that it was all doom and gloom off WA’s coast.
“There are still some pristine beaches,” she says.
“We walked for five kilometres along one beach and found just one Coke lid, and while we were a bit sad to find it, at least we had to look pretty hard to find it.”
The couple self-fund their citizens’ science projects by running boat charters out of Fremantle.
They’re already in the throes of organising their next trip, which will involve kayaking the length of Ningaloo and conducting in-water surveys along the way. They’re hoping to work with the Sea Shepherd campaign to have a bunch of volunteers cleaning up at the end of the trek.
They’ve already got one of the kayaks, which has extra space for a camera operator, but are crowdfunding for a second one.
For a copy of their report or a squizz at life onboard the Charade, head to http://www.saltytimes.com
by STEVE GRANT