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Environment and Communications References Committee
Threat of marine plastic pollution in Australia

STONE, Mr Toby, General Manager, Marine Environment, Australian Maritime Safety Authority

JOHNSTON, Mr Matt, Manager, Marine Environment Standards, Australian Maritime Safety Authority


CHAIR: Welcome. Information on parliamentary privilege and the protection of witnesses and evidence has been provided to you. The committee has received your submission. I invite you to make a short opening statement and then we will go to questions.

Mr Johnston : The Australian Maritime Safety Authority, AMSA, provided a submission to this inquiry on 9 October last year and we thank the committee for the opportunity to appear here today.

AMSA is a strategy authority established under the Australian Maritime Safety Authority Act 1990 with the primary role to minimise the risk of shipping incidents and pollution in Australian waters and maximise people's safety from maritime and aviation incidents within our search and rescue region. AMSA also represents Australia's interests at the International Maritime Organization, the IMO. Our submission related mainly to the implementation of the International Convention for the Prevention of Pollution from Ships and associated activities undertaken by AMSA to prevent the discharge of plastics into the sea from ships. Whilst land-based sources are a major contributor to plastic marine debris, the discharge of garbage into the sea from shipping remains a significant concern and is an important focus for AMSA in its marine environment protection activities. Thank you.

Senator BACK: I congratulate you on the work you do in this space. Regarding marine pollution, MARPOL; have all Australian jurisdictions passed the legislation implementing MARPOL Annex 5 in our coastal environment?

Mr Johnston : They all have, with the exception of Western Australia.

Senator BACK: Why haven't we in Western Australia?

Mr Johnston : That is a matter for the states.

Senator BACK: Are you aware of any objection by the Western Australian government? I am not asking you to comment; I am asking you if you have an explanation? Are you aware of any circumstances which have caused the Western Australian government not to?

Mr Johnston : No, I do not.

Senator BACK: Okay, so if I were to inquire I could do so. The control of discharge of ballast outside of Australian waters is something that AMSA has under its purview, yes?

Mr Johnston : That is the Department of Agriculture. At the moment there is the Ballast Water Management Convention, which is another International Maritime Organization convention, which is not in force yet but it will do shortly. The Department of Agriculture is actually bringing in legislation as part of the biosecurity suite of legislation to administer that convention.

Senator BACK: You do talk in your submission about the challenges posed by biosecurity requirements. Is it an area in which AMSA has any involvement, and could you explain further the concern that you raised in your submission?

Mr Johnston : From the ballast water convention perspective, obviously a ship coming into Australia cannot be hindered in regard to the exchange of ballast water, so we are working very closely with the Department of Agriculture and the suite of legislation to ensure that ships are not hindered in their routes around Australia visiting Australian ports. In regard to the garbage in Annex 5 to MARPOL, which is another convention, we work closely with other organisations. But the primary role is to achieve successful recycling of plastics, in particular, is through good waste management on board ships. The ships are very diligent in how they manage their waste on board the ship; they segregate it a bit like we do on the land, I suppose. But if they come into a port and there are restrictions there, then sometimes those costs can go up. Biosecurity is a very worthy cause to implement and it is very important. But there is a trade-off to how you can not interfere with ships. Some of the costs, some of the complaints that we get, through the IMO in particular, are the costs to ships when they come into port to remove some of this garbage.

Senator BACK: The cost to the ships?

Mr Johnston : Yes. Obviously there is a cost to ships that come into ports where there are waste reception facilities. Usually there are costs. In some ports it is free or it is incorporated within the actual port fees. But on occasions they have to pay for the resources to dispose of this garbage.

Senator BULLOCK: On another committee we are dealing with some big issues. We have heard quite a bit of evidence of ships coming in, having spent long periods of time at sea—foreign flagged vessels. They dock, and the call goes out, 'Give us your waste,' to which the answer is, 'We don't have any.' Now, you do not have to be too imaginative to work out what would have happened to it; it has just been dumped.

When ships come in with no waste, after having spent considerable time at sea, what action does that prompt from you or from anybody else?

Mr Stone : Australia has a very vigorous Port State Control regime. Ships are targeted as they come into the Australian ports. High-risk ships are inspected by AMSA surveyors and part of the suite of the inspection process could be looking at some of the safety certificates, or it could be looking at the lifeboats or it could be looking at waste management plans on board those ships—

Senator BULLOCK: Wages and conditions of the ratings? All those things?

Mr Stone : Say again?

Senator BULLOCK: The wages and conditions of the ratings. Sorry—I am just dropping in from the other inquiry!

Mr Stone : They do look under the Maritime Labour Convention, yes. But to focus on the garbage issues: they would see if there were any anomalies.

Senator BULLOCK: So what would they do if they go on and find a major anomaly? Two months at sea and no waste—what happens then?

Mr Stone : Fortunately, we have legislation in Australia where we can actually detain the ship. There is a raft of measures that we can take. It is a serious breach—

Senator BULLOCK: So how often do you do that?

Mr Stone : I have some statistics. I believe that at any one time ships are inspected every two hours in Australia—these are the statistics for 2014. What we can say is that for pollution detentions—across broader pollution, not just garbage—there is a 10 per cent detention rate of those ships. And if they are detained there is—

Senator BULLOCK: Sorry—are you saying it is 10 per cent of all ships or 10 per cent—

Mr Stone : No, 10 per cent of the ships which were detained—

Senator BULLOCK: Ships that were detained were for that, okay.

Mr Stone : There are penalties—

Senator BULLOCK: So just put a number on it for me, would you? It is all very well to know that there are 10 per cent of ships detained, but in order to get a picture of that we need the number of ships that were detained.

Mr Stone : In 2015 I think we could say that there were three prosecutions against ships primarily relating to garbage.

Senator BULLOCK: So there were three prosecutions for garbage?

Mr Stone : Yes.

Senator BULLOCK: Right—out of 27,000 ship visits to Australia?

Mr Stone : Yes.

Senator BULLOCK: Three out of 27,000.

Mr Stone : We do not inspect every single ship. In 2014 it was something like just short of 27,000 ships—foreign ships—visiting Australia. It would be very difficult to inspect every single ship. But we are fairly confident that there is a limited amount—if any—of plastic going over the side from ships at this point in time. This is also back to—

Senator BULLOCK: Sorry—did you say that you were fairly confident there was a limited amount of plastic going off ships at this point of time? Is that what you just said?

Mr Stone : I said that we are confident that the system is working, through Port State Control. Of course, Port State Control is an international issue. If a ship comes to Australia and there are no port waste reception facilities then she may well sail off and discharge it elsewhere—certainly, hopefully, not in Australian—

Senator BULLOCK: Like at sea?

Mr Stone : So we work very closely with other administrations and through MOUs to monitor the high-risk ships.

Senator BACK: If we have had three out of 27,00, my question was going to be, 'Do you believe prosecution is an effective deterrent?' but I do not really know whether you—

Mr Stone : There are other ways in which we can do it, rather than prosecution. With prosecution, some of the outcomes—the fines—have not been huge, I would have to say. But we can detain the ships and we can do a number of measures to penalise a ship. But, overall, we feel that the system is working in Australia and that it is working globally. It is one of the few global initiatives for plastic. Under MARPOL Annex V, there is zero tolerance for plastic discharge. You cannot discharge any plastic over the side, whether it is from a ship, a fishing boat, a yacht or any other vessel.

Senator BULLOCK: Sorry to do this to you again but, if you would not mind: it is $500 or $600 for the master of a vessel and $5,000 for the owner of the ship. Do you reckon they are effective deterrents? I am just amazed that you think this system is working, Mr Stone—I think it is a joke!

CHAIR: Senator Back.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Sorry, could I ask—

CHAIR: Sorry, no.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: It is a very important point.

Senator BACK: I am still on it.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I know. It is related to Senator Back's question.

CHAIR: Senator Whish-Wilson, I am going to let Senator Back continue while he is on this theme, and then if you have a clarification—

Senator BACK: It is in the context, I think, Mr Stone—and perhaps Senator Whish-Wilson was going to go there as well—that last week in Sydney we had evidence of plastics washing up on beaches in New South Wales north of Sydney, up to their border. I asked the question of whether it was people on cruise ships, and the gentleman was able to tell us from identification of the plastic—in fact, quite often it is a matter of being able to see brand names—that they were quite confident that it was actually not cruise ships but trading vessels: cargo ships. I was quite astounded at the amount of plastic that was picked up by this group of people. It causes me to ask the same question. I do not think we have got the message across to these foreign crews—I hope we have got it across to our own—about the need for more diligence in the marine plastic space.

Mr Stone : We do have education programs. For example, every ship that comes into Australia receives material in regard to what you can and what you cannot do.

Senator BACK: Would that be in the languages, for example, of the crew members? Officers is one thing—

Mr Stone : Yes, it is. There is a 'Welcome to Australia' DVD which we put out to ships through the agents, and through the surveyors. We also work with other organisations, like AUSMEPA. AUSMEPA is the Australian Marine Environment Protection Association, and they work with us. We have jointly produced this video, which we try and get across to ships' masters and the crew as to what you cannot do in Australia. That is all the foreign ships coming into Australian waters.

Senator BACK: Thank you. I will cede to Senator Whish-Wilson. Thanks, Chair.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Mr Stone, I am sorry if I missed it because I was out when you started but could you give the committee an idea of how many prosecutions there actually have been for dumping by boats? Do we keep statistics on how often—

Mr Stone : I will ask Matt to provide those details.

Mr Johnston : Just to clarify an earlier point, we stated that 10.4 per cent of all detentions in 2014 were pollution related. Just to be clear about that, there were 270 detentions, and Mr Stone was referring to three prosecutions. To get to your question, there were three prosecutions in 2015, two in 2014, one in 2013 and numbers of that ilk in previous years.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: How do you catch the perpetrators? I am generally interested—how do you get these guys? Do you actually have to physically see them dumping stuff over the side, or can you somehow identify—

Mr Stone : It comes through a variety of channels. Very often it is through the AMSA hotline, where they report that a fishing boat or someone has been seen throwing rubbish over the side. It can also come, of course, through the port state control inspections, where we find some irregularities in the garbage record book, for example. If they have been on a long sea passage from overseas and there is no rubbish at all, that obviously raises questions as to what they have done with that garbage en route.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is what I was going to ask. I am just thinking about inputs and outputs here, whether there is any way of synchronising a system. I know they do not want too much regulation and international shipping is not heavily regulated anyway, but surely these vessels take on a certain amount of food, and there would be an inventory management system that you could check when they arrive at a port and they have to offload their rubbish.

Mr Stone : There is, and it is very clearly picked up in the waste management plan which all the ships have, and also what is called the garbage record book. Some wastes are permitted to be discharged at certain distances off the land—ground-up food waste, for example. That all has to be logged in this garbage record book so a surveyor can look at it and assess—

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you do audits of those books?

Mr Stone : We do, yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Could you give the committee some details on the kinds of audits you do?

Mr Stone : We would have to take that on notice, but clearly, as part of the Port State Control program, there are a number of issues that surveyors would look at. If they find irregularities in certain areas—for example, the garbage record book—they would then go into more detail.

Mr Johnston : We could provide some examples, perhaps.

Mr Stone : We have some examples here, which Matt can highlight.

Mr Johnston : When port state control inspections are undertaken they review the garbage record book, but they can also test whether crew members understand and can implement their garbage management plan. That is the sort of thing that they might be tested on during a port state control inspection.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do you guys do that, or does some other authority do it?

Mr Johnston : AMSA marine surveyors undertake those inspections.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. Do you have the resources to do a lot of those? What are we talking about?

Mr Stone : As the number of ships have increased in Australia over the last few years, the number of surveyors have also increased. We have put the surveyors in the larger ports. If you look at comparisons with other maritime administrations, we are inspecting the same level of ships, so we are confident that we are managing this.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can you give the committee an idea of what that would be in statistical terms? Are you inspecting five per cent, 10 per cent, two per cent, half a per cent?

Mr Johnston : In 2015 there were 27,000 visiting ships and approximately 4,000 inspections.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Okay. That was for 2015?

Mr Johnston : Yes.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: And there were only three prosecutions in that same year for contraventions of MARPOL for dumping?

Mr Johnston : Yes. There are also other actions taken. They may have recorded deficiencies which they have to correct and that might be, for example, that they cannot demonstrate how the garbage management plan is supposed to work or segregation of waste and that sort of thing. Other than prosecutions, deficiencies are another mechanism, and there are other compliance tools as well.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Is there any sting in the tail at the end of that process, or is it more that you check next time they come that they have managed to fix the problem?

Mr Stone : The ships can be detained. They can be issued deficiency notices, and if they are detained they have to correct those before they sail.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Detaining costs a lot of money, right? It is a huge cost to them if they are detained and held-up?

Mr Stone : Yes. What we do under the various MOUs for the Port State Control program that we have with other countries—in particular, in the Tokyo MOU and in the Indian Ocean MOU—is share these deficiencies. That is how we can target ships as they come into Australia—through the help of other administrations.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Can you get some little posters made in different languages with pictures of plastic bottles floating in the ocean and hand them out for them to stick up on the bridge or in their mess? Is there an education and awareness program?

Mr Stone : There is. There is certainly a requirement under MARPOL annex V, which covers garbage, to provide placards. For example, if you sail on a Sydney ferry you will see placards saying 'Do not put rubbish over the side', and likewise on ships coming into Australian waters. That is one of the requirements of the MARPOL garbage annex.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Do individual companies have their own systems of fines if someone is seen throwing a plastic bottle overboard? Are you aware of any other measures to mitigate that?

Mr Stone : I am not sure.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: Often we are dealing with flag-of-convenience vessels, so I know they are not heavily regulated anyway; I am just interested. When these ships arrive, are there Australian waste management businesses that would be involved in taking their rubbish? Is there a business at the other end of it where that stuff goes to be recycled or goes to landfill? How does that waste management work?

Mr Johnston : Yes. It does vary between ports. There are different arrangements around the country, but largely, yes, it is commercial waste service providers that meet vessels and remove the waste.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So they would have a pretty good idea of the kind of stuff that is coming in on these boats? I know there is wholesale dumping and there is also throwing stuff over the side. You may be interested to know that down in Tasmania there is a guy from Hobart called Matt Dell who has had a longstanding project down in the south-west wilderness area. Over the last 15 years he has gone down there with fishing boats, and while they fish they also clean beaches and bring back rubbish, and everything is carefully documented. The year I went, we brought back three or four tonnes of rubbish just from a couple of beaches. The most common item that we found was a type of little glass bottle that floats. It contains a high-dose caffeine solution used by crews on Taiwanese fishing boats and tankers, and there were all of these bottles washed up on the beaches of the south-west wilderness area in Tasmania. It has come all the way from the South China Sea. To stay awake, they have a little shot of this and then it goes over the side. We found thousands of them. You can see the database if you want to have a look at it. It is quite fascinating. That is only a small item and in volume terms it did make up a huge component. It was the most common item. We can actually trace where it was from. I am sure there are other ways of providing some kind of identification system for some types of rubbish as well. Maybe that is something that AMSA could take on board.

Mr Stone : Yes, certainly.

Mr Johnston : We do work with Tangaroa Blue, who I think put in a submission.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: We are meeting them in Brisbane.

Mr Johnston : They manage the Australian Marine Debris Database and we talk to them about the identification of materials.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: So they will come to you and say, 'We found a certain type of water bottle that's for sale in Taiwan,' or Korea or wherever, and you can work that out?

Mr Johnston : Yes. They are quite adept at identifying the countries, at least where the product was produced.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: You could then work backwards and perhaps send an email or a piece of paper to the Korean ships that arrive and say, 'We're finding lots of caffeine bottles.'

Mr Stone : It would be difficult to identify the actual vessel.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: That is right. It is more about raising awareness that this stuff is washing up and that it has to have been sourced from a particular area. I am sure some of it has washed in from overseas, most likely in places like North Queensland where Tangaroa do a lot of their work. It is a shipping highway for coal ships and a lot of other stuff. I am sure a lot of it is coming off those boats.

Mr Stone : Perhaps a large loss of particular items from one ship, for example, in a container is possible. I have not heard about the caffeine bottles, but we will certainly follow that up.

Senator WHISH-WILSON: I will get you the details. It is quite fascinating.

CHAIR: I would like to ask you a couple of questions about ghost nets. I am sorry if you went over that while I ducked out. Tell me if you have. Earlier, the department confirmed that the ghost nets program had ceased. Where does AMSA fit into that, if you do? What arrangements are now in place, given that the program to deal with the issue of ghost nets has ceased? I understand they are quite a significant issue in terms of marine debris.

Mr Stone : We understand that there is a protocol in place with AFMA regarding how these nets are recovered. I believe it was in their submission—the detail of the northern prawn fisheries corporations who attempt to recover them. Also, if they cannot, on occasions they would use commercial resources to try to recover those nets—if they are too large, for example. That is AFMA.

CHAIR: I asked about the adequacy of that and what has replaced the program now that ghost nets recovery has ceased. Is what AFMA do adequate or do we need to look at a new program or an extension of a program? How do you see that we can overcome the problem, given that it is significant?

Mr Stone : The AFMA submission did give the protocol for retrieving the ghost nets. AMSA have also offered the 24-hour Rescue Coordination Centre to receive some of the reports. We would follow that up and try to get hold of the correct resources to try to recover the nets.

CHAIR: I guess the issue is that the ghost nets program was funded to pick up the ghost nets and deal with that. Are we now just looking at reporting and, if someone is in the area, we are lucky enough to have them picked up? Is that adequate?

Mr Stone : The submission from AFMA did say that they would use commercial resources if they could to recover those nets.

CHAIR: If they could.

Mr Stone : If they can. If AMSA receives notification of these nets—some of them are quite huge and they are quite a danger to navigation—we would have navigation broadcasts each time we had an updated position. Under the SOLAS Convention, there is an obligations for ships' masters to report dangers to navigation. If they accidentally lose a fishing net over the side, they are supposed to report that as well.

CHAIR: For instance, if you get a report or you get a visible sighting or whatever, what is the capacity of the marine users to be able to deal with that issue, given there is not a specific program? Do they just wait for the next ship to go by and hope they might pick it up and, if it is that large, what is the capacity? What is required to pick up some of these really large ghost nets?

Mr Stone : You do need quite large ships to pick them up—tugs et cetera, some of the really large ones. AMSA, really, does not receive very many of these reports. It is AFMA, I understand, who do collate this information.

CHAIR: It is AFMA that collect it not AMSA.

Mr Stone : Yes. Obviously, under MARPOL, it is a breach if a fishing boat deliberately puts a net over the side. If it is accidental, the master has to report it. That will come through to AMSA and we will put out appropriate broadcasts to make it safe. It still does not answer the question of who is going to remove those nets; I accept that.

CHAIR: That is right. It is great to report lots of things but it is about trying to resolve the problem as well. I thank you both for your attendance here today and your submission.

Proceedings suspended from 10:41 to 10:54