First published Tuesday 10 May in Surfing Life Magazine
Marine scientists are calling on surfers and locals from Bondi to Bells to participate in one of the largest research studies into ocean pollution ever undertaken in Australia.
The Clean Ocean Foundation (‘COF’) has partnered with the National Environmental Science Programme — Marine Biodiversity Hub, which is based at the University of Tasmania, to create a National Outfall Database (‘NOD’) in an effort to combat ocean pollution.
John Gemmill, the chief executive officer of COF, estimates that there are hundreds of ocean outfalls scattered along the Australian coastline. The outfalls discharge between three to five billion litres of partially treated wastewater on a daily basis. This wastewater ends up in some of Australia’s most pristine marine environments.
“A study in the year 2000 identified 142 outfalls along the Australian coastline, although we think there is more likely to be around the 400 with a total discharge of 3–5 billion litres,” he said.
“We are still counting them as part of the National Outfall Database and it will probably take us another 12 months to know the exact figure.”
The research will ask surfers, ocean users and members of the local community to assist in gathering data and water samples from the affected areas. This presents a big opportunity for COF to collect data on a big scale.
“There is all different types of data that will be useful, but as first step, we are just wanting to make sure all outfall locations are documented,” Gemmill said.
“Citizen science is going play a big role and we will be approaching surfers, fishermen, surf lifesaving clubs, Surfrider Foundation chapters and all the different ocean users and lovers where outfalls are located to help out.”
“Possibly even boogie boarders,” Mr Gemmill added.
“This is a once in a life time opportunity for surfers and other ocean users to come together to say thank you to the oceans for all they have given us.”
Treatment levels vary as the plants used to treat the wastewater are largely designed for domestic waste. However, the pipes contain a whole range other substances, as many industries can purchase permits to use the domestic system. There is currently no central place where information on these outfalls is accessible to either community members or policy makers.
From May 2016, the NOD will document these outfalls including the level of treatment of the wastewater and the levels of pollution along the coastline. The hope is that this data will then be used to create an evidence-based approach to policy reform.
The NOD has been made possible with the help of funding from the Federal Government. According to Greg Hunt, the Minister for the Environment, the purpose of the NOD is straight-forward.
“The goal is very simple: to have an academic quality, unimpeachable source of data about different outfalls around the country,” the Minister said.
According to Minister Hunt there are two stages to the NOD project: collection and application. The collection stage aims to create a full chronicled list of all the outfalls in Australia, their volumes and levels of treatments.
“The application is about giving us a pathway to clean up each of these outfalls and to increasingly recycle from them,” he said.
The Minister said that there should be no poorly treated wastewater allowed to flow into the ocean 10 years from now.
“I think it is time to set that target and clean up all of the outfalls and to reuse that water wherever possible,” Minister Hunt continued.
“You can’t have a 19th century practice in the 21st century. For me the dumping of sewage, whether it is raw or primary treated, is simply a relic and an unacceptable practice from a past age.”
According to Dr Simon Perraton, NOD Chief Researcher, communities, water authorities and the natural environment will all benefit from the database.
“We want to help everyone, from surfers who could potentially get sick, all the way to industries who could potentially use recycled water instead of it going to the ocean,” Mr Perraton said.
Dr Perraton said that the idea behind the partnership was that everyone would benefit from knowing where wastewater was going and what effects it is causing on the environment.
“Clean Ocean Foundation wants everyone to know if they are about to surf near a sewage outfall,” Dr Perraton concluded.
Clean Ocean Foundation was formed in 2000 by a group of surfers from Gunnamatta beach on the Mornington Peninsula. Their aim was to stop the 500 million litres of wastewater that was being dumped at that beach every day. The group ran a successful campaign that resulted in a $400 million upgrade of the Eastern Treatment Plant.
Water policy is predominantly a State issue. However, according to Minister Hunt, the Gunnamatta campaign is a good example of how the federal government might be able to utilise the NOD to influence State policy.
“The Gunnamatta outfall is the perfect example. It wasn’t constitutionally a Federal issue, but as a local MP engaging with the Clean Ocean Foundation and the community we campaigned to have it cleaned up and the State ultimately contributed $400 million.”
Surfers and other ocean users wishing to take part in citizen science activities can find out more at www.cleanocean.org.
Angus Smith is a former Campaign Manager and CEO of the Clean Ocean Foundation.
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