Divers counting and removing debris in the Nambucca River estuary.
More than 300 underwater volunteers have been cleaning the state’s estuaries and seafloor, removing around 3500 items of rubbish from over 14.5 hectares during the past three years.
The clean-up has occurred from the Tweed River in the north to Eden in the south and involved 11 underwater research groups under the banner of Underwater Volunteers NSW, with guidance from Southern Cross University (SCU) marine researchers.
The project has been funded by the federal government’s Caring For Our Country and championed by the Hunter-Central Rivers Catchment Management Authority.
Associate Professor Stephen Smith and project officer, Bob Edgar, from SCU’s National Marine Science Centre, developed sampling protocols to ensure that all site surveys were done in the same way. They also implemented a series of training programs to build the research capacity of underwater volunteers.
‘Standardised methods mean that we can use the data to say something definitive about the state of our marine and estuarine environments,’ Professor Smith said. ?’For example, we now know that estuaries are where we find the most rubbish and that fishing-related items, and especially monofilament and braided fishing line, are the most prevalent in all underwater habitats.’
Much of the recent activity has focused on the Hunter-Central Rivers region of the state where Terrigal Underwater Group (TUG), Great Lakes Underwater Group (GLUG) and the Combined Hunter Underwater Group (CHUG) have cleaned 45 sites including shallow estuaries and deep offshore sites (HMAS Adelaide). ?Underwater divers work in pairs to methodically record the exact time, type and location details of the debris they find onto datasheets. This information is then uploaded onto the Underwater Volunteers NSW database.
‘We have tried to make the process of data entry as simple as possible,’ Mr Edgar said.
‘Volunteers can now simply log onto the website, type in their data, and then download a summary for their group.’
The statewide program demonstrates how volunteers can not only contribute to sustainability of resource use, but also provide important data for ongoing management. ?’The role of citizen scientists in the future management of our resources should not be underestimated,’ Professor Smith said.
‘Marine science is largely under-staffed and under-resourced and well-trained volunteers are increasingly helping to fill some key gaps in our knowledge about coastal habitats.’
The project is attracting considerable attention and the project team was recently awarded the SCU’s Vice Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Community Engagement.