Rubbish from the 83 containers lost off a cargo ship last Thursday could still be washing up on Queensland and Tasmanian beaches in six months’ time.
YM Efficiency was making its way from Taiwan to Sydney when it was hit by heavy swells about 30 kilometres off the coast of Port Stephens in New South Wales.
Nappies, jars, car parts, packaged food, clocks and sanitary items have begun washing up in the Hunter region.
CSIRO physical oceanographer David Griffin told The New Daily he expected debris and containers to wash up in Port Macquarie or as far north as Coffs Harbour over coming days.
A Port Macquarie local said no containers or debris had been spotted so far.
Debris will then begin drifting back south after a northerly change, Dr Griffin said. He said he would not be surprised if debris washed up in Queensland or Tasmania in six months’ time.
All of the containers will move differently depending on what they’re carrying and how damaged they are. Some containers will have sunk to the ocean floor.
Coastal oceanographer Charitha Pattiaratchi, from the University of Western Australia, said it was difficult to say how far the debris could travel.
“How long is a piece of string?” Professor Pattiaratchi told The New Daily.
In 1992, a container of 29,000 rubber ducks and other plastic bath toys was lost in the Pacific. The toys have washed up all across the globe.
Tens of thousands of Nike shoes were also lost overboard in 1990.
Both oceanographers told The New Daily losing containers in bad weather was not uncommon, but that 83 containers was a very high number.
Boaters have been warned the containers could create navigation hazards.
NSW Environment Minister Gabrielle Upton on Monday announced the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) would recover the costs of the clean-up from the ship owner.
AMSA and the NSW Roads and Maritime Service (RMS) are leading the clean-up and contractors have been engaged.
Port Stephens EcoNetwork’s Nigel Dique and about eight volunteers have already filled at least 20 large bags of debris from Zenith and Box beaches.
“There were broken clocks, bits of structural plastic material, lots of jars and food items packaged in plastic,” Mr Dique said on Monday.
“I don’t know what else was in these containers, if there was anything toxic, but certainly turtles and whales and large marine creatures think they are food and swallow the stuff.”
A further 30 volunteers – including Julie Sims from Hawks Nest – found car parts, drinks, sanitary items and other plastics strewn across Jimmys Beach.
“It goes on and on and on – it is just plastic, plastic, plastic,” Ms Sims said.
The NSW Greens warned plastic poses a particular threat to marine life, including sea birds, whales, dolphins and turtles.
Greens marine spokesperson Justine Field called on the state government to fast-track the clean-up to prevent further damage.
“The NSW coastline is a very busy maritime route. We should have excellent emergency response protocols but it looks like they have either failed or are grossly inadequate,” he said.
The ship’s insurer has employed local company Varley to put skip bins out for residents to dispose collected rubbish and use a helicopter to find the debris floating at sea, local MP Kate Washington said.
The Environment Protection Authority (EPA) will organise a meeting with affected councils, AMSA, RMS and clean-up contractors to ensure the effects are minimised and all waste is removed.
AMSA said it was too early to consider if charges would be laid.
“Once the ship comes into port, AMSA will assess it for compliance with the requirements of the Safety of Life at Sea convention with regard to cargo stowage and securing,” a spokesperson said.
The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is also investigating the incident.
Debris sightings should be reported to RMS at 13 12 36.