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Environment and Communications References Committee
26/02/2016
Threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia

HARDESTY, Dr Britta Denise, Senior Research Scientist, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO

SMITH, Dr David, Research Director, Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO

Committee met at 08 : 30

CHAIR ( Senator Urquhart ): I declare open this public hearing of the Senate Environment and Communications References Committee in relation to its inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia. This is a public hearing and a Hansard transcript of the proceedings is being made.

Before the committee starts taking evidence, I remind all witnesses that in giving evidence to the committee, they are protected by parliamentary privilege. It is unlawful for anyone to threaten or disadvantage a witness on account of evidence given to a committee and such action may be treated by the Senate as a contempt. It is also a contempt to give false or misleading evidence to a committee.

The committee prefers all evidence be given in public, but under the Senate's resolutions, witnesses have the right to request to be heard in private session. It is important that witnesses give the committee notice if they intend to ask to give evidence in camera. In addition, if the committee has reason to believe that evidence about to be given may reflect adversely on a person, the committee may also direct that the evidence be heard in private session. If a witness objects to answering a question the witness should state the ground upon which the objection is taken and the committee will determine whether it will insist on an answer, having regard to the ground which is claimed. If the committee determines to insist on an answer, a witness may request that the answer be given in camera. Such a request may, of course, also be made at any other time.

On behalf of the committee I would like to thank all those who have made submissions and sent representatives here today for their cooperation in this inquiry. I now welcome Dr David Smith and Dr Britta Denise Hardesty from the CSIRO. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has the CSIRO's submission and I now invite you to make a short opening statement—and I notice that you have provided us with that, thank you. At the conclusion of your remarks I will invite members of the committee to put questions to you.

Dr Smith : Thank you, and good morning. I am a research director in the CSIRO's Oceans and Atmosphere business unit. I am joined by Dr Hardesty, who is a senior research scientist with us, but who has also been leading our portfolio of research into marine debris over the last few years.

We welcome this opportunity to talk to this inquiry into the threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia and Australian waters, and we thank the committee for your time, the opportunity to share information about our work and to answer any questions today.

We think we are well placed to respond to the inquiry. We have had a significant research effort in the last five years on addressing a wide range of questions relating to marine debris and plastics, including all those items covered in the terms of reference. We have published over 18 papers in international literature and numerous reports, including a report to the environment department in 2011.

As I mentioned, we made a written submission to the inquiry on the basis of several years of research. Our national marine debris project was initiated to address knowledge gaps identified by an environment department under EPBC, and we have also done research on exploring sources, impacts and methods for amelioration of ghost nets as a threat to marine species. In terms of direct questions, I will hand over to Denise to give some of the key points from our work.

Dr Hardesty : The key findings from our work include that most of the degree or litter that we find on Australian coastlines is local and from land-based sources, and that initiatives such as container deposit schemes, outreach programs, prosecution of illegal dumping and investment in waste control facilities can all significantly reduce plastic pollution in coastal areas.

To date, there are demonstrated impacts to wildlife, including seabirds, marine turtles, as well as recreational and commercially important fish. We have estimated that the number of turtles affected by entanglement in abandoned, lost or derelict fishing gear in the northern Gulf of Carpentaria region alone is around 15,000 to 20,000 turtles.

The Southern Ocean between Australia and New Zealand is likely a hotspot for potential impact of plastic ingestion by seabirds. We predict that approximately 99 per cent of the world's seabird populations will have ingested plastic by 2050. Approximately half, or 52 per cent, of the world's marine turtles are estimated to have ingested debris at the present time, and marine turtle hotspots for debris ingestion include the Australian continental shelf. The cost of littering and debris to fisheries, small business and human health remain poorly understood, and littering costs to local government due to remediation and tourism losses are substantial.

There continues to persist major uncertainty around the cost of debris to fisheries and small businesses in Australia, quantitative information regarding links of ingested plastics to human health, the population level impacts of ingestion on marine fauna, including commercially and recreationally caught food fish, sea turtles, seabirds and marine mammals, the entanglement and ingestion risks to cetaceans in Australian waters, identification of changes in litter distribution, origins and losses into the environment, and the frequency and potential economic impact of invasive species via hitchhiking on marine debris. I am happy to respond to any questions the committee may have regarding CSIRO's marine debris research program and the research findings to date.

CHAIR: Both in your submission and also now you have mentioned the issue of marine plastics—the intensity and the size of it. Can you give us an idea what percentage of marine plastics from local sources comes from beverage containers specifically? Do you have that information?

Dr Hardesty : There are two parts to that. Globally, it is approximately 40 per cent of all the litter that is found in coastal areas. That is based upon several decades of clean-up data through the International Coastal Cleanup. Within Australia, we find similar amounts that are beverage industry associated. It is different if you look at things by count or by weight or by volume. For example, by count, one bottle can break down into dozens and dozens of small pieces.

CHAIR: In your submission you mentioned that you have done some work on the impacts of council, state and federal policies on marine waste, and you talked about the effects on tourism. Are you aware of any work on the positive impact of container deposit schemes?

Dr Hardesty : Within Australia, or globally?

CHAIR: Either. Are you aware of any globally that we could use.

Dr Hardesty : I can tell you of one analysis we did. We used the Clean Up Australia Day data from 2012 and did an analysis across all the different sites and all the states and territories. What we find is that there is a highly significant difference in the number of beverage container items in South Australia, compared to the other states and territories. For example, in some of the other states and territories, one of three items that you pick up on the beach would be a beverage container—we limited it very strictly to caps, glass bottles, plastic bottles and aluminium cans. When you look in South Australia, it is one in 12 items that you find. That is a very notable difference, and it is a highly statistically significant difference. It would appear that that could be correlated with the existing container deposit scheme in South Australia. That is an Australia-specific example.

CHAIR: What funding sources does CSIRO use for projects to look at these issues?

Dr Hardesty : I can tell you the funding sources that we have had to date, or that we currently have. We had a small project with the Department of the Environment from 2009 to 2011 to really look at the status of knowledge within Australia, and that was co-funded by CSIRO. Then we had our large national marine debris project, which was supported by Shell's social investment program in Australia. We also did some work with GhostNets Australia, and their funding came through the Caring for our Country program. We currently have some work which is supported through Ocean Conservancy and NOAA, as well as a project which is funded through the United Nations Environment Program. Those have all been co-invested by CSIRO as well.

CHAIR: Has the quantum of funding available to look at this issue changed over the past three years?

Dr Hardesty : Yes.

CHAIR: By how much?

Dr Hardesty : I cannot give you dollar amounts. I would have to take that on notice.

CHAIR: Can you take that on notice? It would be useless if you could.

Dr Hardesty : Sure. Just so you are aware, the large project that was supported through Shell's social investment program finished in 2014.

CHAIR: I am also interested in the value of the projects funded in 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015. Can you take that on notice. It would be great if you could break it down by years.

Dr Hardesty : I can, and I can tell you the generalisation that it has decreased rather than increased. That is my best guess at the moment. But we will evaluate that. I would rather take that on notice.

CHAIR: If you want to take it on notice to provide more specific information, that would be great.

Dr Hardesty : You would like to know for the 2012 year and on to the current year, yes?

CHAIR: For each year, yes. Have any projects been discontinued or not re-funded?

Dr Hardesty : The Shell social investment program finished. That ran from 2011 to 2014. That has not been re-funded.

CHAIR: What projects have begun in the last two years that look at this issue?

Dr Hardesty : The projects that have begun in the last two years that address this issue are the projects which are funded by the United Nations Environment Program, the work with Ocean Conservancy and NOAA, and I had forgotten one other one which is funded through the Australian Packaging Covenant—that has started in the last two years.

CHAIR: Will the recent funding decisions have any impact on the resources that you currently have looking at this issue?

Dr Smith : If you are talking about the recent changes with the restructuring within CSIRO, we are still going through the process, but I do not anticipate there will be any. We have got funding out to 2017 in this area, and I do not anticipate there will be significant changes in this research area.

CHAIR: But will that have an impact beyond 2017?

Dr Smith : I think this is an area we will continue to do research in. But, like all research, we need to co-invest and get other partners to support us as well. But this is not an area in which we anticipate being impacted by this restructuring.

Senator SINGH: Haven't 100 jobs been potentially earmarked to be cut in the oceans and atmosphere business unit?

Dr Smith : There have. That is on the public record.

Senator SINGH: But you are saying that is not in your particular area of the oceans and atmosphere unit.

Dr Smith : What I am saying is that in this particular area we are still going through the process, as we all know, and in this particular area we do not anticipate major changes.

Senator SINGH: Right. But there will be some job losses in this area.

Dr Smith : What I am saying is that I do not anticipate any significant changes at all in this area.

Senator BACK: I just want to explore a couple of areas. The first is the container deposit scheme. Can you just take us through it. How long has South Australia had it in place for?

Dr Hardesty : I would have to take that on notice. I do not know the exact year in which they put it into place.

Senator BACK: Approximately.

Dr Hardesty : It has been in place for more than a decade. That is my understanding.

Senator BACK: Is it the only state? Has the Northern Territory recently introduced a scheme?

Dr Hardesty : The Northern Territory had enacted a container deposit scheme. Then there was a court dispute and it was pulled back. Now it has been re-enacted, so I understand that there is a container deposit scheme in the NT at present.

Senator BACK: Are they the only two jurisdictions?

Dr Hardesty : To my knowledge, within Australia, that is correct.

Senator BACK: It will help the committee enormously in preparing our report if you have any data that can point definitively to a reduction in marine plastic pollution. I did hear you mention the numbers of items on beaches. Do you have data that can directly point to a significant reduction in South Australia—the Northern Territory has probably not had it long enough—as opposed to the other states. You can take that on notice or you can respond to it now.

Dr Hardesty : Absolutely. That report has been provided, and it is publicly available. You can even download it from our website. But if the committee would like, I am happy to make available and provide to you the page number where it is stated in our 2014 report, if that would be of use.

Senator BACK: Yes, it will be of use. Secondly, you mentioned the ingestion of plastics and its relationship to human health. This is something that I think is of critical importance to this committee in (a) what we hear and (b) how we frame our report. I know it is not your field, but you work in it and you may be able to tell us where we should go to find the information that describes the pathology in human beings of microplastics in our bodies that have come into our systems as a result of consuming fish, presumably, or seafood.

Dr Hardesty : I think I understand why and how that is such an important issue to the committee. It is a very tricky and difficult issue to try to understand. I would say that there is not definitive, peer-reviewed, published literature that can address each of those steps all the way up through to, and including, human health. The reason for that is that you would need to do a whole series of controlled experiments to be able to state these things definitively, to some extent, and there are ethical considerations around doing such experiments.

What I can tell you are various steps along the way. For example, they have done some laboratory experiments with fish in tanks that have been fed either clean or virgin microplastic pellets or fish that have been exposed to chemical contaminants in the environment. They have found that, even in these small fish that have been fed these particles, there has been cellular and tissue level disruptions. That means aberrations in cell growth, and a change or difference in cell growth means a cancer, essentially. We have seen that in fish.

We have also found—there are some published reports and we are doing some additional work—that commercially imported food fish do ingest plastics. Plastics are found in everything from plankton, all the way up the food chain. If a fish eats—

Senator BACK: Intracellularly?

Dr Hardesty : It has been shown, in some experiments with bivalves and molluscs, that there are some intracellular movements of very small microplastics, or nanoplastics, within tissues. We also know that plastics have been used in human bodies for surgical procedures for many decades. So, really, some of the more definitive information on human physical health, within the body, comes from the human medical literature on the topic. But there are no definitive studies that say, 'People who eat fish are showing these demonstrated human health changes or impacts.'

Senator BACK: In that context, I appreciate the comments you are making—

Dr Hardesty : And I am sorry; I am not trying to be too long winded.

Senator BACK: No, I am vitally interested in it. I am just wondering if the medical profession is reporting clinical signs that other causes cannot account for which point to microplastics, either within the cells or within the body spaces.

Dr Hardesty : I would want to take that on notice to do a more thorough review.

Senator BACK: If you could, that would be very useful. I am also anxious to know something about the actual chemistry of the breakdown of these plastics in the marine environment. Is it ultraviolet? Is it the salinity of the water? Do we know about bacterial breakdown? Do we know anything about how a plastic bag ends up in a microplastic situation in the marine environment?

Dr Hardesty : We do know anything about it? Yes, we do. You need to consider all the different polymer types—or all the different materials that different plastics are made of. You asked about the particular processes that takes place. There is weathering, which occurs through UV radiation. There are also physical processes, through waves and hitting against other things. The coastal area, in particular, is a very dynamic area where there is a lot of wave action on rocky shores or sandy substrates. So there is physical breakdown and there is UV breakdown as well. There are also some bacteria that do break down plastics—that 'eat' plastics, as they say, from the surface of plastics for different polymer types, which means they are then becoming smaller than microplastics and becoming nanoplastics.

Senator BACK: That is really part of my question. From a management point of view, particularly in the terrestrial environment, are we at the stage yet of knowing of any bacteria or other microorganisms that can be harvested and utilised in the process of breaking down plastics—or, as other witnesses said last week, do they just break it down into even smaller bits of plastic that still exist in the atmosphere?

Dr Hardesty : It does break them down into smaller and smaller particles. I would urge caution at the consideration of a technological solution such as trying to develop bacterial species to break down the plastic. I think that the issue is so ubiquitous and pervasive that it is sure to be compounded with some other significant challenges should such an approach be taken.

Senator BACK: Thank you. Chair, I have one more question if time permits.

CHAIR: Okay. Senator Singh.

Senator SINGH: I wanted to start by getting something clear regarding the major national study that you did in 2014. That study was into marine debris in Australia. How do you define marine debris?

Dr Hardesty : Marine debris is typically defined as any human-made material that ends up in the coastal zone or out into the marine environment. Within the United States they also consider the Great Lakes, so things that end up in freshwater environments. Really, litter that has ended up at the coastline is the standard viewpoint or perspective on it. Some of that ends up being washed out into the ocean and coming back onshore. Much of it stays within the coastal region and some of it ends up much further afield out in the oceans.

Senator SINGH: Out of that study did you break down the types of debris?

Dr Hardesty : Our work is a little bit different than some of the clean-up activities. We were aiming at doing a rigorous, reputable survey method around the entire continent. We were looking at material types. We did not look at things the way they do on the clean-ups, such as how many bottle caps or lids. We were looking at plastics and thin film-like plastics. We had some particular categories such as cigarette butts and things like that. But typically it was hard plastic and soft plastic and film-like plastic, and ropes and twines, which also are plastic—and those sorts of categories. We were really looking at it from the viewpoint of what is the threat to Australia's wildlife marine fauna. A bird or a whale or a dolphin does not care if it is a can or a bottle. They care where the material is, and are they more or less likely to ingest it or mistake it for food?

Senator SINGH: I think we are not giving them much choice when there seems to be more of a certain type of plastic that ends up as litter than other types. For example, we have heard of a higher percentage of plastic bottles than other types of plastic. But still, plastic is plastic, I suppose.

Dr Hardesty : Sure.

Senator SINGH: Can you expand on the impact of plastics on the marine fauna? What species are at greater risk?

Dr Hardesty : Most of the work to date has really focused on our megafauna. We have focused most of the work on seabirds and turtles. One of the areas that the government had deemed really important was to look at cetaceans, which has not been done yet. We have a list of 188 seabird species and we can have a rank order for how likely they are to be impacted by litter ingestion based upon a paper that we published recently. We also recently did an evaluation of the marine turtle species of the world and looked at where are the hot spots of risk for those species. Most of the work has been focusing on vertebrates. There is an increasing body of work that is being done looking at molluscs, bivalves and things like that, mostly from the human consumption perspective.

Senator SINGH: Would seabirds be regarded as marine fauna?

Dr Hardesty : Yes, seabirds are. That is different from shorebirds or wading birds along the coastline. Seabirds live their lives in the open ocean and most of them, from the time that they hatch and fledge, do not touch land again for several years until they come back to breed. They are truly pelagic living out there in the oceans. We often consider seabirds as the canary in the coal mine, if you will, in the oceans. It is a really good indicator of ocean health.

Senator SINGH: This paper you just mentioned that you have done on seabirds—is that something we can be provided with?

Dr Hardesty : Sure. I have a copy of our publications here, in case that is of interest. We have some that are specific as well.

Senator SINGH: Chair, can we have that paper tabled?

CHAIR: As no-one has any issue with that being tabled, it can be tabled.

Senator SINGH: In your submission you say that the most effective way to reduce and mitigate the harmful effects of marine debris is to prevent it from entering the marine environment; that cleaning up our oceans is a much less practical solution. How are you arriving at that? Should it be an either/or proposition? I understand from the research you have done that you have found that litter making its way to the coastline is harmful to our coastline and marine environment, but why should cleaning up our oceans not be a practical solution?

Dr Hardesty : What I am really referring to there is going out to the true pelagic, out to the open ocean. People talk about going out and cleaning up the garbage patches. Many are probably aware that there is The Ocean Cleanup project et cetera that aim to do that. The scientists around the world—not just within Australia—are pretty much in very solid agreement that that is not really a practical or viable solution. The reasons for that are many. Some of those reasons include that it is not the sea or the island of plastic floating on the top, like people think; there are the really small bits of plastic. It is much more like a plastic soup. It goes down the water column for tens and tens of metres. It is not just a surface thing where you can just scoop up all the plastic. It is economically very expensive to do. If you are cleaning up the garbage patches, that stuff is not static. It will come back around to the coastal zones, which is a much more cost-effective and viable opportunity to remove things. Removing them before they get out into the ocean is the way to reduce the harm to marine fauna. Another reason why cleaning up with a technological solution out in the open oceans is not very practical is that the currents and the storms mean that it is very likely that you would end up creating large floating and subsurface debris through employing such a device in such a remote area.

There are discussions about being able to recycle the plastics that you find out there. They are actually biofouled and there are real challenges with present recycling practices and capabilities to be able to turn that into something that is either economically neutral or financially lucrative. Those are just some of the reasons. Also, given that most of our litter comes from the land and much of the litter that ends up in the ocean was in someone's hand, there are real viable and practical solutions that can take place at the local level. Those are going to be much more economical, environmental and socially viable options.

Senator SINGH: There is illegal dumping from ships that goes on in our oceans. There is still obviously going to be an issue of it increasing in our oceans.

Dr Hardesty : Absolutely. There still will be. The thing to remember is that ocean currents move in different areas. If things are dumped in a nearshore environment, they may wash ashore to the coastal zone where they can be removed. That is not to say that there are not some areas of particular circumstances where doing particular focal clean-ups in areas is not important; it is about looking at the overall issue.

Senator SINGH: You talk in your submission about the significant contribution of illegal dumping of domestic rubbish in urban areas in Australia. Are you able to make an estimate of the percentage of marine plastics that come from that?

Dr Hardesty : I would not be comfortable making an estimate of the total proportion. That is a really good question, however, and I will certainly follow up on that.

Senator SINGH: Thank you.

Senator BULLOCK: When you were answering questions from Senator Back, you talked about work that had been done on the effect of fish ingesting microplastics, but then you said, quite understandably, that no work had been done on the health effects of feeding those fish to humans. Has any work been done on feeding those fish to other fish?

Dr Hardesty : There has not been a trophic-level transfer experiment done—which is what we would call that—or published to my knowledge. I am pretty up on the literature and I have not seen anything that has been published on that.

Senator BULLOCK: It would be interesting, wouldn't it, to see whether the damage done to smaller fish goes on to affect larger fish?

Dr Hardesty : What I can tell you, however, is that some of the plastics and the compounds that are attached to them act as hormone mimics. We have seen that there is actually intergenerational transfer, so that can be transferred from, say, a mother to a foetus. You can see some generational transfer or impacts from some of those chemicals that are absorbed onto plastics or that are the constituent components of the plastics themselves, depending upon what type of plastic it is.

Senator BULLOCK: Like Senator Back, I am a Western Australian. In your submission you say that the west coast and the very north-eastern tip of the continent appear to receive material from international sources. And there is a bit in the submission about the Gulf of Carpentaria and the things that affect that, but I wondered what was affecting the north-west coast of Western Australia, where it came from and what can we do to fix it?

Dr Hardesty : I cannot tell you exactly where all that stuff is coming from, but if you look at the way the currents run across the country—it is seasonal, of course—you know that there are particular areas that are going to be 'accumulating areas'. Western Australia, the West Coast of Tasmania and the Gulf of Carpentaria are areas where we get particularly high concentrations of fisheries related—

Senator BULLOCK: We know some of the stuff is Indonesian.

Dr Hardesty : We do.

Senator BULLOCK: I just wondered whether any work has gone into identifying the sources of the rubbish in Western Australia?

Dr Hardesty : We have not done work particularly focusing on that. I know that Tangaroa—

Senator BULLOCK: Can I suggest that Western Australians might have an interest in the results.

Dr Hardesty : Absolutely, yes.

Senator BULLOCK: Knowing where it comes from might be a help in stopping it from coming.

Dr Hardesty : Absolutely. We welcome the opportunity to continue doing work in this space.

Senator BULLOCK: The north-west of Western Australia is quite sparsely populated, and that would lead to difficulties in the clean-up as well.

Dr Hardesty : It could. There have been concentrated efforts to go in to clean up particular areas like that. One of the things that we have been doing is actually working with some of our overseas neighbours to look at things like fisheries related gear and when, how and why fisheries are losing their gear, so that we can start addressing some of those issues at the source, because it is a really important transboundary issue—as you have pointed out.

Senator BULLOCK: There was a little bit of talk about container deposits. From the point of view of Commonwealth expenditure, or government expenditure generally, how would you compare the cost effectiveness of container deposits with more bins on the coast or with anti-litter campaigns—where are we going to get our best result for public expenditure?

Dr Hardesty : I have not done a cost benefit analysis to be able to give you hard numbers on that, so I would need to take that on notice.

CHAIR: In relation to those container deposit schemes, I know there are a number around the world. I am happy if you take this on notice: can also provide any comment on what you think best practice in this area is.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Thanks for being here today, Dr Hardesty and Dr Smith, and thanks for all the work you have done in this area over the years. It is a sad indictment that after four short years here I do not get excited by much in parliament anymore, but I was very excited about you coming and presenting here this morning. You said that you welcome ongoing work. Can you give the committee an overview of the kind of funding that you have received to date and where you got that from. There is some detail in your submission, but could you provide the committee with an overview of where you have got your funding from.

CHAIR: That has already been answered.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is fine. More generally, did you quantify the dollar amount of research that you have received from different sources?

Dr Hardesty : We have not quantified that. I will take the specifics of that on notice. I think we estimated that it has been around—

Dr Smith : It has been about half a million a year for the last few years, but we will give you the details.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I think you said you had received some money from the federal government for a scoping project?

Dr Hardesty : We did. From 2009 to 2011 we had a project with the department. I can tell you the amount of funding, if that is what you are looking for?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes.

Dr Hardesty : It was $70,000 that came from the department.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Was that around the time the threat abatement plan was being put together?

Dr Hardesty : That was prior to the revision of that, because it came up in 2009. That was to evaluate and provide an overview of the state of knowledge within Australia—where things are coming from—with a small pilot project. And that really helped feed the way for some of the other work that we have done subsequently.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And your other sources of funding have come through private collaboration with overseas projects and this and that?

Dr Hardesty : It is mostly philanthropic.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Something that was very obvious from the witnesses we got evidence from in Sydney recently was that a number of them had had to source their funding privately, even through philanthropy. Has it been easy getting funding, with the kind of work you have been doing?

Dr Hardesty : As scientists, we are constantly writing proposals to get funded work through a variety of different sources. As there has been increasing public awareness, we have been very fortunate to be able to piece together different projects to continue the work after our large national project.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I do not know if Senator Back has said to you what he said in Sydney to the witnesses. This is your chance to not hold back, if you feel this is an area that we should be putting a lot more funding into. You said you welcomed future funding or potential future funding. Those were not your exact words, but you would welcome the opportunity to do more work in this area.

Dr Hardesty : We very much would. There are numerous issues and specifics where we could provide real value to the government in terms of helping to inform some of these things. The government really wants to know what the best bang for the buck is. That is a really important and valid question. My role or job as a scientist is to collect and provide that information, but I cannot just pull something out of the sky. It takes some time and resources to be able to answer those questions effectively. We have started doing a bit of work. We have called up councils around the country to ask them how much they spend on waste management. We try to look at how many people are there, how long the coastline is, what the per capita income is and those sorts of things so that we can start to look at some of those correlations. That stuff is really important. We want to continue this work and be able to provide the government with solid, scientific, robust responses to these questions. That is very important.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Dr Smith, do you have any thoughts on that kind of issues?

Dr Smith : This is an area that CSIRO will continue to invest in. We will continue to put dollars into this area. It is like any other part of the research we do. We are continually working with partners, clients and funding agencies within Australia and internationally to increase that funding base.

Dr Hardesty : One area that one part of the department had asked about specifically, which they thought was really important, was to assess entanglement and ingestion impacts on cetaceans. They are very important for a number of reasons. They are really good indicators of ocean health. That is one body of work that has not yet been done. We have now taken that risk-based approach, which is the analysis approach we take, where we say, 'What is the threat? Where are the species? Where do they overlap? What is the impact going to be on those species?' There are the tools in place to do that for cetaceans now that it has been done for seabirds and marine turtles. That would be—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That would mean protected species in this country are falling under the EPBC threatening process and the TAP. We have heard large macro-evidence or data that has come to light about potential plastics production in future and leakage into the ocean. The World Economic Forum put out some figures recently. Do you have any comments about the kinds of numbers that they were talking about in terms of the expected increase of plastic contamination?

Dr Hardesty : We are seeing that the amount of plastic going into the ocean is proportionate to the amount of plastic produced. We are losing a similar proportion. As we have an increase in global plastic production we are seeing a corresponding increase in the amount of plastic that is entering the ocean.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I can understand why they would have wanted to put out some headlines like 'Under our scenarios there could potentially be more plastic in the ocean than fish in 30 years time.' I can see why they do that kind of thing—to get public attention on the issue. Do you have any comments about those kinds of statements that have been made? Do you think that is reasonable?

Dr Hardesty : I would need to go back and look at how they did the calculation for that and take that on notice. I am not the scientist that is going to give you the big, sexy headlines, because I am very pragmatic.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, I understand—not many will, unfortunately! We heard the same thing from our panel in Sydney the other day.

Dr Hardesty : There was a recent comment that Australians eating plastic are getting 11,000 pieces of plastic, if they eat seafood, each year. And so I went through and did a fact check for The Conversation. Again, I am not going to give you the really sexy headlines, but that figure is if you are in Europe and you are eating dozens of mussels each day, which is not really the average Australian seafood diet. I understand that people want to make headlines and that is fine.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes. My question is quite broad but, given that we are expecting an increase in plastic production—and we can get pretty good estimates of that based on economic models—and given that we know that we have got a certain amount of leakage and we expect to see more plastic in the future in the ocean than is currently there now: how do you as a scientist assess a threat if it is cumulative? I am thinking of the threat to threatened species, such as cetaceans and seabirds.

Dr Hardesty : I think what you are getting at, Senator, is really sort of multiple stressors, or multiple threats. If they have the changing sea level, and they are ingesting plastic, and all those sorts of things, you really need to look at multiple things. We do it using a modelling approach, where we are looking at the multiple threats and trying to pull different ones out of those, so that you can actually try to assess the relative weight or the relative importance of these various threats or risks. I think with plastic there is the eating it and filling up your belly; there is the getting tangled up in it; there is the gut perforation side—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And that is pretty much where you have been focused with your work.

Dr Hardesty : Yes. And then there is the chemical contamination side that is associated with that. That becomes another risk or threat.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is that still a gap in our knowledge—the chemical contamination side? Is that something we need to do more work on?

Dr Hardesty : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Have you been involved in any work in that area?

Dr Hardesty : We are involved in some work in that area. We have been working with some international collaborators, based at UC Santa Cruz, where we are actually looking at that. We were talking about hormone mimics earlier; we are looking at endocrine disruption, and looking at that on plastics, and actually using the digestive juices of seabirds so that we can really start to evaluate that. I think the next critical step is looking at potential population-level impacts.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. With the EPBC Act and the threat abatement plan, is it too simplistic to say that the ultimate aim is to make sure that we do not see species extinction from this form of pollution? Or is it more about the individual harm? For example, you have done a lot of work on oceanic-stage turtles. What is the ultimate aim here? Is it just to reduce harm, or is it to prevent species extinction?

Dr Hardesty : So are you asking, what is the ultimate goal of the threat abatement plan?

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Yes, I am—because we have heard evidence that it has not really abated the threat in any way, shape or form. And it is being revised, so we would like to know where it is going and what the plan will be.

Dr Hardesty : I did not write the threat abatement plan, and am not a part of that, so I think it would be a little bit out of line for me to speak to that directly. I read 'abatement' as the aim is to reduce or mitigate the harm to the marine fauna that are identified specifically; as those species that are covered under that—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So for the marine fauna that you are familiar with from your research work, such as turtles and seabirds, do you believe that threat has been abated at all since we put a plan in place—from your observations and your research?

Dr Hardesty : I would say that we have increasing plastic: we are seeing increasing amounts in, and entangling and affecting, the marine fauna. I think that there is much to be done to reduce the amounts going into the environment. And I think there are some real on-ground solutions or opportunities to effectively abate. In one of our pieces of work in the Gulf of Carpentaria, we have actually said, 'this is where you can go to interdict these nets before they go into these areas of high biodiversity'. So we are trying to put into play, or provide suggestions for, on-ground opportunities to actually reduce harm in areas where we know that there are potentially tens of thousands of individuals being affected.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. We had evidence from another scientist in Sydney about trying to get the shearwaters listed as a threatened species, partly because of the cumulative impacts of plastic and other stressors. Are you involved in any work in trying to get certain species that are quite vulnerable to plastic pollution listed as threatened species?

Dr Hardesty : I have been working on shearwaters on Lord Howe Island—and it is my guess that it would be flesh-footed shearwaters. Globally, the world population has not been shown to be in decline. We are actually doing some population estimates, and there are multiple stressors and sources of mortality on the Lord Howe Island population. I know that there are high concentrations—high amounts—of plastic that we find in the bodies of those birds out there. I know that there are also other drivers. Am I currently doing work to get a species listed anywhere in the world? No; I am not.

Dr Smith : I think it is fair to say that we generally respond to requests to make comment on whether species should be listed. We do not take a role in actually nominating them.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: From a value judgement—not necessarily a scientific thing—we have heard evidence that there is a mortality rate of up to nine per cent of the chicks due to plastic ingestion. They may not be listed as a threatened species—and therefore they may not come under the threat abatement plan. There is obviously a value judgement that we are killing lots of seabirds through plastic ingestion, but it does not factor into our plans to mitigate plastic. It just seems very odd. Most people would find that quite abhorrent.

Dr Hardesty : Looking at causality versus correlation is really important. We are actually doing some work right now to try to estimate how much plastic it takes to kill a turtle or to kill a seabird. Of all the necropsies, of all the cutting open of dead birds or dead turtles that you do, the ability to assign actual cause of death due to plastic ingestions is exceptionally small.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: As in there is too much uncertainty there?

Dr Hardesty : Right. Unless you can actually see a gut perforation or see that there is a blockage, it is very difficult. You can say that birds are starving, you can say that they have low body fat and all these sorts of things, but to actually assign causality is a—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: In that case, as a scientist, would you go with a precautionary principle and suggest that it is potentially a factor and therefore we should take that into account?

Dr Hardesty : With the ocean plastic pollution issue, as with many environmental issues, I think that operating under the precautionary principle is a reasonable principle to take. I do not think we want to wait until we know unequivocally and, even as a scientist, I do not think we want to see say, 'We need to wait and do more research,' and do more and more research.' We know a lot. We know enough to be able to make good, informed recommendations and management decisions. We know that we find fewer plastic bags on coastlines during clean-ups when you move away from urban centres. We know that we find fewer beverage containers when you are picking up litter—not just on the coastline but around the states and territories—when you are in South Australia. We know some of these things. We have good information.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: With my background in this, it has been quite fascinating to have seen that research coming online in the last five or six years, when it was not there when we started this campaign a long time ago—that we actually have some data now that we can use. But it still seems to me that it is very scant. There still has not been much work done in this area for such a broad pollution issue.

Dr Hardesty : I think it is an incredibly broad pollution issue. There are now numerous papers and stories on individual species, and we really need to start addressing the population level impacts beyond just the individual impacts. We developed a method where you can start to assess that at a population level for seabirds in a non-invasive, nonintrusive way on live animals, rather than having a biosample. I think there are some real opportunities to be able to address these questions more holistically and to be able to assess where the plastic issue falls among the other threats that are out there for a marine life.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I might just ask you about albatrosses, because I know that you have been doing some work in that area as well. On Flinders Island you were in shearwater rookeries looking for evidence of other plastics that had been brought in by birds. I think the evidence the committee got was that there did not seem to be much in the albatross rookeries south of Tasmania. Is it similar in other places like Midway Atoll, where we have been hearing and seeing lots of quite emotive videos about the impacts on the albatross species, which we know is under quite significant pressure? Is it different from place to place?

Dr Hardesty : It is different from place to place. I worked out on Midway Atoll in the 1990s when, instead of shooting digitally, you had slides. I had slides of the plastic that we found on albatross and things out there. I have not been fortunate to go to the colonies and the subantarctic. I understand that they do not find the same quantity of plastic in the breeding grounds. Albatross in particular expel non-digestible matter, so they will actually expel bottle caps. They do not get out entire toothbrushes that we do find in them, but they expel all sorts of bone and other things.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So you have found entire toothbrushes inside an albatross?

Dr Hardesty : Yes, and I have seen bottle caps and I have found even glass bottles with metal lids inside albatross. In Australia, on Lord Howe, on one of the pieces of plastic that I found in addition to toys, you could read the label where it says 'Made in Australia'.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So we are an exporter of some marine debris?

Dr Hardesty : We certainly are.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Was that because a bird would mistake it for food? What would a toothbrush look like, I suppose?

Dr Hardesty : It is hard for me to be in a bird's mind. My guess is that roe—so fish eggs and other things—adhere to the surfaces of some of these objects, and that is what makes birds preferentially or randomly select for that, if they are coming across enough of it. They are naive consumers: they do not know.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Aren't we all? Thank you, Dr Hardesty.

CHAIR: I have got one final request. You said that you would take on notice the value of the projects funded over a series of years. Could you also break that down into the different components: how much the federal government component is for those projects that are funded and started in those years; and what other sources that comes from?

Dr Hardesty : Yes.

CHAIR: All right. We are over time, so I thank you for your submission and your attendance here today.